The amount of change businesses need to manage each year is increasing. At the same time, employees’ willingness to embrace change is waning. Here’s how HR can manage change fatigue in their organisations.
Many organisations are experiencing a “change crisis” at the moment, according to Neal Woolrich, Director of HR Advisory, Gartner.
In 2016, the average business experienced approximately two major planned changes each year. This could be anything from a change of senior leadership to a merge with another business.
In 2022, businesses were experiencing an average of ten major planned changes per year – think organisational restructures, introducing new technologies, mandating a return to the workplace.
While it’s expected that changes will occur as business environments become more complex, what’s concerning is that, concurrently, employees’ willingness to embrace change has seen a sharp dip (74 per cent in 2016 compared to 38 per cent in 2022).
“That’s a massive reduction in the willingness of our people to support our change. Change fatigue is increasing,” said Woolrich at Gartner’s ReImagine HR Conference, held in December.
He says anecdotal information from clients suggests that these numbers could be even worse in 2023-2024.
The confluence of these two data points is leading to what he calls a “transformation deficit”.
“A lot of our organisations have lofty transformation goals… but we’re at serious risk of descending into a transformation deficit spiral.”
If organisations are trying to innovate, grow and work in new ways, a workforce that’s drowning in change fatigue will be a significant handbrake. The good news is that HR professionals have the skills and expertise to solve for this, says Woolrich.
Open-source change management
Change fatigue can have serious impacts on talent and organisational outcomes. It can cause individuals to feel anything from frustrated to apathetic about organisational change.
This can lead to lower rates of enterprise contribution, poorer performance and lower intent to stay with the organisation, said Woolrich.
In order to keep change fatigue at bay, organisations need to embed high levels of employee trust and facilitate strong team cohesion, he added.
One solution is to practise open-source change management which allows for employees to be engaged in the change process in a transparent manner.
“There are three key pillars to open-source change management: employees co-create their change decisions, employees own implementation planning, and also we give employees permission to talk openly about change.”
Organisations that successfully embraced open-source change initiatives saw a reduction in change fatigue by up to 29 per cent, Woolrich said.
“And [employees’] willingness to change is almost 50 per cent higher in those organisations.”
However, a key barrier preventing open-source change from being a success in businesses is a lack of psychological safety, he said.
“It’s a foundational element to enterprise change. Without it, even the best change strategies are destined to fail, or not get the outcomes we want.”
Safety to experiment
When psychological safety was present, businesses saw a 46 per cent drop in change fatigue, found Gartner. However, there’s an important caveat. There are two different types of psychological safety that employees need: safety to experiment and safety to challenge.
Safety to experiment includes feeling safe to learn from mistakes, ask questions and try new things.
“The safety to experiment in times of change is a prerequisite for people to feel empowered, to contribute, to make a difference.
“There is a clear role for HR teams to create that accountability for fostering safety to experiment.”
Woolrich shares an example from Mercadolibre, an e-commerce retailer based in Argentina.
Mercadolibre developed a decision-making framework, with the end goal being that employees decide on 90 per cent of decisions and 10 per cent are escalated upwards.
Employees are coached to apply three criteria to determine whether to escalate a decision:
- Is it reversible?
- Is there a low correction cost?
- Does it have a limited impact on the ecosystem?
If employees can answer ‘yes’ to all three, then they are empowered to make the decision themselves. However, they are supplied with guidelines to help them, such as how long certain decisions should take, how decisions should be communicated and how they will be executed.
For example, the general rule of thumb is that decisions owned by employees should be executed within a week and the 10 per cent that are escalated are usually decisions that would take a few months, and several meetings, to make a call on.
“This way, during periods of high disruption and high change, employees will intuitively know those routines that are safe to experiment with.”
Safety to challenge
Employees also need safety to push back against the status quo, says Woolrich. That can look like speaking truth to power, playing devil’s advocate and being involved in shaping certain decisions.
“Less than half of employees feel as though they have safety to challenge. Again, there’s a critical role for HR in this process.
“We need to embed those cultural norms and invite healthy and productive challenges to the status quo. That way, our leaders will be able to get that critical information from their teams to help better inform change decisions.”
“The safety to experiment in times of change is a prerequisite for people to feel empowered, to contribute, to make a difference.” – Neal Woolrich, Director of HR Advisory, Gartner.
However, it’s critical that there are clear boundaries in place.
“The safety challenge does not mean everyone gets a vote or everyone gets a voice. [We want the] right people in the conversation – empowering knowledgeable employees to share that information.”
You need to distinguish between the squeaky wheels and what Woolrich calls the “productive sceptics” – people who are knowledgeable, customer-minded and solutions-driven.
He refers to another example, a US-based organisation that provides healthcare and insurance services, that approached safety to challenge in an interesting way.
They ran workshops that allowed their ‘productive sceptics’ to challenge rules in their organisations that felt outdated or unnecessary. They defined these as rules that added no value, had arbitrary deadlines, took attention away from high-value tasks and frustrated end users.
“It’s not a free for all, they’ve clearly defined these workshops and they’re really clear about the people they want involved,” he said.
“HR leaders are involved because they have decision-making powers. HRBPs and HR managers are included because they have the [ability] to identify significant process pain points.
They also get subject matter experts involved, especially those with cross-functional expertise and exposure.
“Bringing those people together is critical to having a shared understanding of what needs to change.”
We need proactive methods like these to manage change, says Woolrich, as it helps to respond with speed, build buy-in and, over time, develop change momentum in your people. It’s a worthy investment of time because if your employees aren’t championing your changes, it could have significant impacts on your business’s progress towards its goals.
Need help navigating workplace change? AHRI’s change management short course will arm you with the skills to understand change dynamics at an individual, team and organisational level.