Change Fatigue; permanent whitewater world

by Edward Henkler on July 14, 2015

Change fatigue occurs when change is the steady state…

Change fatigue…the phrase immediately conjures up images of far too many corporate settings. We live in a world where you’d be surprised by a company which was not implementing a major change initiative. Pick your favorite change type – merger & acquisition, ERP system implementation, downsizing, re-organization. The end result is what Dr. Greg Shea calls change fatigue. Borrowing directly from his website, Greg is “an expert in developing complex organizations and their leaders”.

Change fatigue in the new steady state

Change fatigue – take a break

Greg suggests that change fatigue is a byproduct of misaligned expectations. Not that many years ago, major change initiatives were an occasional activity. In most instances, you could grind for a period of time (days, weeks, or maybe a few months), then return to the steady state. Most of your working life involved a series of stable activities almost exclusively dedicated to managing the business. The world has changed quite a bit since then, with change as our our steady state and our jobs a portfolio of projects. This is different but not necessarily bad as long as we adapt. Grinding for a short period of time is no longer an acceptable coping strategy as it is stressful, emotionally and physically. Maintaining a work-life balance becomes significantly more important, a theme to which I’ll return. Communication becomes critical to engage employees and allay fear. Project management skills become more important than process optimization, unless that happens to be the change initiative.

I especially liked his perspective on providing more “private family” time. This is an important stress management tool, for both the employee and their family. Greg suggests than the challenge in providing more private family time is that companies view everything as a cost rather than benefit (alternatively you could evaluate net cost/benefit). It’s not about the cost of more maternity/paternity leave, it’s about the cost of failure (divorce, addiction, sick leave, long term disability). In Brazil, email access is turned off while you’re on vacation; that’s a bit harder to imagine in the US. Most people would accept that Americans work longer hours and “harder” but are they more effective? Many studies have documented the value of downtime to recharge. One interesting study found that northern Mexico has almost no post-partum depression. That’s an area of rampant poverty, low education, and limited infrastructure. The study suggested the surprising absence of post-partum depression is attributable to the entire village assisting for one month while the mother bonds with the child and recovers her body. Downtime to manage change fatigue?

Greg and I did differ on one point although there really wasn’t an opportunity to discuss. There was general agreement that millennials are better able to multitask than older folks who tend to think sequentially. Where we differed was his perspective that millennials have lower focus, poorer communication skills, and poorer social/general management skills. I would contend that their skills are different, making them differently-abled, but not better or worse.

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