Change Comes at a Cumulative Cost

Change Comes at a Cumulative Cost | Handling Workplace Change

How Handling Workplace Change Affects Employees

Many organizations find themselves at a point of change saturation. 

It’s old news that the workplace is turbulent and more so now than ever. Change does not follow an orderly, linear path. Existing change management tools and approaches are insufficient for addressing all the change that’s occurring. There is simply too much going on, and change can’t be managed using simple step-by-step models.

Leaders can’t ignore the seemingly never-ending, planned, and unplanned changes co-occurring in their organizations. It’s no easy task to succeed at complex, continuous change.

Things rarely return to normal once workplace changes are implemented, and organizational resources are often insufficient to implement changes while still delivering on daily operations. All this change is costly.

Each new workplace change — reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, technology upgrades, personnel transitions, and more — requires an investment of time, effort, and energy. These can all add up to change fatigue.

Sometimes, handling workplace change is not too taxing; other times, it leaves people exhausted, resentful, or angry. These changes cost more than just the organization’s time and money.

It’s not just the size or scope of any given change that has people in reactive mode. People’s responses to workplace change are tied to the cumulative effect of change over time — and whether they have what they need to face it.

How Workplace Change Can Replenish — or Drain — People’s Reserves

Think of your team as having a bank account. At any point, each team member only has so many resources saved — energy, attention, and interest that can be put toward the current projects and efforts your organization faces.

Handling every workplace change, large or small, requires a withdrawal from the account. The problem comes when your people never have a chance to build up their reserves. Even the smallest change or challenge will be felt as overwhelming, or unnecessary, when your team’s capacity feels so limited.

That’s why it’s important that leaders recognize that all changes, even positive ones, require people to use precious resources to adapt. There’s a cost in handling workplace change for each and every employee.

Not all workplace change is bad, and the cumulative effect of change comes back to the resources that employees have that enable them to adapt and handle workplace change.

Our research has found that employee attitudes about any given change are tied to this sense of capacity, not just whether a change is inherently “good” or “bad.” The effort required to change and adapt can be offset when employees feel they have the reserves and resources to handle it. They may even gain a beneficial boost from the change if it replenishes that resource bank.

  • You can imagine the impact of cumulative negative change. Employees are drained and it’s difficult to muster interest, much less enthusiasm, for the work. Our research showed that employees who experience more negative change report greater change-related stress, frustration, and cynicism and are more likely to plan to leave their job.
  • Cumulative positive change has the opposite effect, although to a lesser degree. Employees who experience more positive changes report less stress and frustration, lower levels of cynicism regarding future changes, and are less likely to leave the organization. Commitment, engagement, and excitement are possible because employees have the resources to invest in the organization and the job.

How to Handle Workplace Change Better

What can you do to improve the way you and the people you lead are handling workplace change? How can you build up reserves to minimize the cumulative cost of change?

  • Understand that change is neither good nor bad. Workplace change needs to be understood in its totality. Generally, more change is more stressful than less change. Start to look at whether the net impact of change on people is positive, neutral, or negative, based on whether they have the time, tools, and energy needed to succeed.
  • Recognize the harm in taking away resources. It’s more draining to take away resources than it is helpful to add them. In other words, the negatives are stronger than the positives. The more “loss” is involved in change over time, the harder it is for positives to counteract or create the sense of capacity and reserves needed to respond to change with energy and enthusiasm.
  • Know your employees. Pay attention to their change history — especially if you’re the new manager coming in. Consider how many changes have occurred and the cumulative demands these changes have placed on employees. Have those changes been positive, neutral, or negative?

Change is costly, but so is failing to change. Choose your workplace changes carefully and factor employees’ reality into decisions. This is how to build a more resilient organization that can handle workplace change. Wise investments can make the difference between a pool of employees who are engaged and effective — and a demoralized group struggling to get through each day.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Support your employees to better handle workplace change with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Conflict Resolution, Innovation Leadership, Leading Through Change & Disruption, Resilience-Building, and more.

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December 2, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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