The idea that there’s a quick fix for culture can cause lots of problems. As Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague put it in their Harvard Business Review article, “Culture isn’t something you ‘fix.’ … Cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges. … Culture isn’t a final destination. It morphs right along with the company’s competitive environment and objectives.”
Employees are constantly told they need to change processes and practices, only for the leadership team to keep on doing what they always do, and managers maintaining the same old routines. Despite an initial surge of enthusiasm, nothing ever changes. The irony is that “change fatigue” can set in, despite “the way we do things around here” remaining very much the same.
Our latest survey with corporate leaders found that change fatigue is one of the top 2 challenges faced when building organizational cultures. Other surveys state that change initiatives flounder because companies lack the skills to sustain change over time. When the reasons and need for change are poorly communicated, everyone feels frustrated and deflated.
Becoming Resilient in the Face of Change
David Altman, our COO, argues for giving leaders and employees a short, sharp shock: In effect, “If you think change is constant now, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“What leaders must do is to help employees and managers to recalibrate their expectations,” Altman argues. “This is the world we live in now — change is a constant. There is no ‘getting back to normal.’ The message from leaders needs to be: ‘Let’s get ourselves in shape as individuals and as an organizational culture to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in. Let’s equip ourselves together to become more resilient to accommodate that.’”
4 Steps to Overcoming Change Fatigue
According to Altman, leaders can help employees — and themselves — cope with change fatigue by taking the following steps:
1. Help the organization continually prioritize change efforts, and focus on the change initiatives that are the highest priority.
2. Recognize and talk about how change is both the beginning of something new and an ending of something that previously was embraced as a best practice.
3. Teach employees evidence-based techniques for managing stress, building resilience, and deploying copying skills in the face of high demands.
4. Focus attention on building a culture of high psychological safety in which people can take interpersonal risks by speaking their truths.
“The last step will help leaders understand the challenges and opportunities that exist throughout the organization, which in turn will help leaders be more effective in leading their teams through change,” Altman says.
Viewing Change as Continual Evolution
As an example, Altman relates the experience of a large company in the energy sector attempting to reinvent itself in the face of volatile market conditions. “This is an organization that realizes, given the VUCA [Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous] world of energy — whether it is oil and gas prices, competition, government policies and so on — that what worked in the past doesn’t work anymore, which was just generating energy and selling it at a good price. It’s also not just about hiring more good engineers.”
Engineers are trained to identify problems and come up with a solution; they are steeped in LEAN and Six Sigma. “But they are not set up to take risks, to be innovative, and try new things out,” Altman adds.
Across all industries, many traditional, hierarchical global companies struggle to adapt with sufficient speed and, as a result, must change their mindsets about what is needed to survive and thrive in the new world order.
Legacy companies with ingrained cultures have to understand that “there is no end point — this is continual evolution,” Altman says. The ability to be innovative and flexible is directly linked to the ability to constantly change and seek new opportunities.
“Most successful change initiatives start with baby steps, even transformational change,” he adds. “If you want to lose weight, you don’t starve yourself for a week — that isn’t sustainable. Instead, let’s get ourselves in shape as individuals and as organizations to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in.”
It may be a tough message. But it need not be a harsh reality. Forget “change fatigue,” Altman says; instead, think of “change energy.” Dynamic, innovative, changing, and constantly learning: This is the new reality. And with the right leadership, it’s an exciting and galvanizing message for employees.