Change Resistance and Change Fatigue: Sensible Response to Dumb Change Or Something Else?
Updated: May 14
Introduction: Lately I've been doing a range of talks to organisational change management practices about the key themes in my new book 'Change Management that Sticks'. When question time comes around there's been a predictable query EVERY - SINGLE - TIME! That question is 'what tips do you have to help me overcome change resistance?'. That got me thinking about the topic of change resistance, or as I prefer to call it in my book, 'change reaction' - as it's less loaded. My first thought when I'm asked this question is always 'change resistance - or sensible response to dumb change?'
We all know the pace of change is accelerating (yada yada yada - is it a VUCA world or a BANI world?). And we do live in a mid-pandemic world. The inevitable result is that people are more stretched and much more stressed. Change is the new black but overwhelm is the new norm for many.
So, in this blog post, we will explore the concept of change resistance and change fatigue, discussing whether change resistance is a real phenomenon or simply a result of poorly conceived change initiatives and a general sign o' the times (cue Prince track). We will also examine what I've labelled the three categories of change resistance and delve into the reasons for change fatigue, providing some insights on how to avoid it.
I should say I was already thinking about change resistance and fatigue BEFORE I got the repeated question, as I listened to the excellent podcast interview Natasha Redman did with Gilbert Krudenier. Gilbert provocatively stated, 'there is no such thing as change fatigue', rather there's an inevitable, but understandable response, to poorly conceived change. If you haven't listened to this podcast, or any of the other excellent 'Casa de Cambio' change management podcasts go check it out here!
Change resistance is a pretty natural human reaction to disruptions in established routines or environments. Generally, we find disruption annoying.
Resistance can stem from various factors, including fear of the unknown, perceived threats to job security, or concerns about personal competence to adopt to the new change. We may fear loss of status and power, or maybe just money and title. In some of these cases, change resistance is justified.
I've identified three distinct categories of change resistance.
These are as follows.
Dumb Change: This category refers to changes that are poorly conceived, inadequately planned, or not well-aligned with organisational goals. Such changes are often met with resistance, and rightly so, as they may lead to negative consequences for the organisation and its employees.
Unpopular but Necessary Change: These changes may be unpopular among employees, but they are crucial for the organisation's survival or growth. For instance, cost-cutting measures or reorganizations may be met with resistance, even if they are essential for maintaining competitiveness.
Change Done to People Rather Than With Them: This type of change resistance arises when employees feel that they have not been consulted or involved in the decision-making process. Even if a change is well-conceived and necessary, it may be met with resistance if employees feel excluded or unheard.
Unfortunately, I've seen a fair amount of Category 1 dumb change. This is often when there's a change of senior leader. New brooms like to sweep clean. Even when the 'floor' isn't actually that dirty. Or is it that they're looking for dirt in all the WRONG places?
This means the old, but sound adage, 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' is forgotten. I've seen a range of restructures, reengineering of perfectly decent processes and swapping out of one serviceable system for another unproven one, purely because a new senior leader wanted to be seen to be doing something. Worse yet of course is when a senior leader has a buddy managing some type of product and/or service provisioning company who needs a juicy contract. This change will inevitably be resisted, strenuously if the culture has observed the bogus reasons on which the change is founded. The change is poorly conceived and lacks appropriate root cause analysis to justify the transition. Tough to sell a compelling outcome on these ones!
Remedy for Dumb Change
To remedy this one, I would urge any senior leader who takes a role in a new organisation to just sit back and observe for at least 6 months before changing anything. If it's not about a new leader, then it's time for a brutal prioritisation of all the change currently scheduled. The categories to sort the change into need to be as simple as 'continue' and 'stop'. Note that to do this well, you need a functioning view of the organisational change that shows the scale of impact, when and the teams impacted. When there's two or more significant pieces of change landing in the same team in a two-month window, it's likely you need something to move.
2. Remedy for Necessary but Unpopular Change
For this one it's back to finessing the change levers with care. Leadership advocacy, and on-the-ground influencers (champions and super users) all have their part to play. And there's always stick measures to add to the carrots. I see the stick, rather than carrot side of performance management, often neglected these days. There seems to be a general unwillingness to flex the organisational muscle via legitimate negative consequence performance management measures but they can be compelling if managed appropriately.
3. Remedy for done 'to' and not 'with' change. If an organisation mistakenly believes a change manager can be brought in to 'force' a change through, then there's a fundamental confusion about the purpose, not to mention duty of care, of the change manager. My remedy on this one is to state categorically, don't hire a change manager like we're there to do the dirty work. We're not cheap, and that's because the work is intense, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but definitely all encompassing.
"We are there to set up the offers that will lead people to choose adoption for themselves."
That means change recipients 'do' the change because they decide to - not because we MAKE or rather attempt to MAKE them. To get acceptance of the offer, the change must be done WITH and not TO the change recipients. Note there can be a mixture of carrot and stick incentives and disincentives in those offers - but choice to comply or not still rests with the individual.
Now on to a closer examination of change fatigue. You often hear change fatigue mentioned shortly after you hear about change resistance. Usually there's a correlation drawn that there's resistance to the change, BECAUSE there's change fatigue. So, to much change has happened consecutively, and/or in quick succession for too long. Like a piece of soggy blotting paper, the environment has soaked up too much change. Now structural integrity is compromised. The organisation is beyond the tipping point of change saturation.
Some other primary reasons for change fatigue include:
Lack of clarity or understanding of the change initiative's purpose.
Insufficient ongoing communication and engagement with employees, or the framing of messages and/or mediums is ineffective for the audience.
Poorly executed change management processes and lack of on the ground support during and post transition.
Constantly shifting priorities or an excessive number of simultaneous changes, all treated as separate items, rather than selling an integrated change story across the cumulative outcome.
To avoid change fatigue, organisations can adopt the following strategies:
Use brutal prioritisation at the senior executive level to cull down change initiatives. Have hard conversations about which ones truly align with the organisation's strategic goals and which ones don't. Make sure there's someone who can veto stalemates on whether initiatives stay or go. Have a clear commitment to do 'a few things well, rather than many things badly'.
Communicate the vision and purpose of the change clearly and consistently and sell a vision of the collective outcome.
Engage employees in the decision-making process and allow them to participate in shaping the change from inception. The end user should be front and centre during the root cause analysis, so you KNOW you are solving the right pain points in the right way.
Ensure a well-planned and structured change management process that includes employee training and support and an embed and sustain 'tail' to the change effort post implementation.
Before concluding, I have to acknowledge that most of the solutions I'm talking about here sit a long way above the pay grade of many change managers. However, in line with my views on the criticality of appropriate root cause analysis, I feel we have to go for the jugular on this one. Let's recognise where the problem fundamentally lies. That's with the senior leaders, aka change initiators, who need to initiate good change for the right reasons and goals and hold the line against competing changes that don't pass the prioritisation sniff test.
Conclusion: Change resistance and change fatigue are real phenomena that can hinder an organisation's ability to adapt and thrive, but before you slap on the polarising labels, be clear about what's triggering these responses. Is it dumb change? Necessary but unpopular change? Or ok change that just isn't being done well? If there is change fatigue, is that because you're over the point of change saturation, trying to do too much too quickly? To overcome these challenges, organisations must recognise the different categories of change resistance, engage employees and be really mindful about the value the change offers. Do less well, and culture will take a sigh of relief, as you foster a resilient environment that embraces meaningful adaptation and innovation.
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Barb Grant, the author, is a master change practitioner, who mentors change managers and change agents to deliver change that gets adopted and delivers meaningful results. She is the Director of Encompass Consulting, 'Bold Change' and CM2 change mentoring and author of the #1 Amazon bestselling book for change agents, 'Change Management that Sticks.' Barb is a frequent speaker on topics related to change management and the successful leadership of change.
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