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Definition

change fatigue

Contributor(s): Dennis Shiao

What is it?

Change fatigue is an organizational affliction that results from management-led change initiatives. It can surface when management introduces too many changes in a short period of time. Employees exhibit change fatigue by showing confusion, apathy, stress and even anger. "Passive resignation" is a term often associated with the effects of change fatigue.

What does it do?

The amount of change happening in an organization can make employees feel anxious and overwhelmed. Change uproots the status quo and introduces uncertainty. Without clear direction from management, employees can find it hard to prioritize their work and keep things organized during periods of change.

Change fatigue can lead to lower employee morale and productivity. In the worst case scenario, it can bring an organization to its knees, sapping productivity and output. In addition, change fatigue makes employees resistant to change, "tuning out" when it comes to subsequent change-related initiatives.

Who uses it?

In many organizations, management plans and executes change-based initiatives. Managers announce the change initiative, expecting employees to execute the change. From the employee perspective, change is being unleashed on them. If, instead, employees were the initiators of change, there would be less likelihood of change fatigue.

Harvard Business School profiles Ricardo Semler, president of Semco, a manufacturing and services company in Brazil. At Semco, employees are given a lot of choice -- they choose their jobs, titles, and even pay. Change is not managed or imposed by senior leadership; instead, groups of 8-12 employees manage the company's processes and change initiatives. "As a result, change becomes continual, gradual, low-level -- and virtually unnoticed." In other words, at Semco, change comes from the bottom up, rather than the top down. This bottom-up approach may be well-suited to minimizing change fatigue.

How does it work?

Change fatigue can result in employees who are disengaged, apathetic and less productive. Employees may take on a "here we go again" attitude and simply go through the motions on the latest change initiative. The result is average or below average output, with few employees going above and beyond their calling. If change fatigue is not addressed, organizations can enter a spiral of lower productivity, lower morale and employee turnover.

Why is it important?

A systematic approach to change management can lessen the potential for change fatigue. Organizations have a limited capacity for change, which means that leaders must have an intentional strategy for effecting, managing and controlling change. The role of leadership is to clearly communicate the "why" and "what" of change and help stakeholders adapt to it.

In some instances, management announces a major change initiative, then never returns to check on progress or see it through. Leadership must take a holistic view of all the change it's introduced and assess how much credibility and leverage it has to introduce more of it.

What else should I know about this term in order to sound knowledgeable?

In an article at SearchCIO, Scott Buchholz, a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP, said that a deficiency in many organizations is the lack of a plan to lead change. "We continue to forget that we can't just put a new mousetrap in front of people and expect them to use it," said Buchholz.

The change agent needs to be prescriptive in how change will be rolled out and play a hands-on role in executing it. Without the right involvement from leadership, change fatigue is likely to deepen as additional change initiatives surface.

This was last updated in August 2019

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