February 27, 2023
Change fatigue is something that can - and probably will - pose a challenge to everyone at some point in their professional lives. Whether its seismic organisational changes, or a multitude of smaller ones, change is never more prevalent than in a rapid growth environment such as startups.
At its core, change fatigue is a blanket term used to describe a myriad of symptoms brought about by a manner of different change initiatives by leadership.
Whilst change is inevitable - and often desirable - in a rapid growth environment, it is important to recognise the symptoms of change fatigue in team members and manage them well before it has a detrimental impact on employees - and business success.
There are a number of ways of looking at change but for the purposes of this blog, we will look at Ackerman (1997) who identified three types of change:
Developmental – May be either planned or emergent; it is first order, or incremental. It is change that enhances or corrects existing aspects of an organisation, often focusing on the improvement of a skill or process
Transitional – Seeks to achieve a known desired state that is different from the existing one. It is episodic, planned and second order, or radical. Much of the organisational change literature is based on this type
Transformational – Is radical and requires a shift in assumptions made by the organisation and its members. Transformation can result in an organisation that differs significantly in terms of structure, processes, culture and strategy. It may, therefore, result in the creation of an organisation that operates in developmental mode – one that continuously learns, adapts and improves.
It’s also worth highlighting the distinction between:
Episodic and continuous change
Episodic change, according to Weick and Quinn (1999), is ‘infrequent, discontinuous and intentional’. Sometimes termed ‘radical’, episodic change often involves replacement of one strategy or programme with another.
Continuous change is ‘ongoing, evolving and cumulative’. Also called ‘incremental’ change, continuous change is characterised by people constantly adapting ideas they acquire from different sources. At a collective level these continuous adjustments made simultaneously can create substantial change.
Each type of change will have a different impact on individuals. A good way to visualise these is placing changes along two scales: radical – incremental and core – peripheral (Pennington 2003). This can give an indication as to how changes can impact employees.
Before identifying the early warning signs of change fatigue, it’s important to understand exactly how change impacts us.
Whilst change does not impact us all equally, and not all change is equal, when it comes to a broad view, Gartner found that a series of small changes leads to greater fatigue than fewer big changes. They suggest that changes which have the greatest impact on an employee’s day-to-day, such as team changes, have 2.5 times the impact than large, structural changes such as a company merger.
It’s important to highlight here that change is not the enemy. In fact, it can affect us in wonderful and positive ways, too. Change can be extremely exciting, motivating, and a helpful tool for individual and team success - if managed well.
Gartner also found that our ability to cope with change is 50% of what it was pre-pandemic. This means that employees are reaching change saturation faster than they previously would.
Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota coined the term surge capacity to help explain why.
Stemming from the concept of episodic vs continuous change, surge capacity refers to physical and mental resources that we draw on for survival in acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters. But these acutely stressful situations occur over a short period and these resources are finite - when the stressful situation comes to a close, they need to be replenished. Ann said: “The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity”.
Whilst experiences of the global pandemic were vastly different for all of us, we were universally thrust into an acutely stressful situation where, unlike a natural disaster, there was no clear beginning or middle, and we were using our surge capacity resources in flight-or-fright mode for over a year with no clear end in sight.
In the post-pandemic landscape, we now have depleted change capacity, exhausted surge capacity and consequently are set on a faster trajectory towards change fatigue than pre-pandemic times.
Given that symptoms of change fatigue can vary from person to person, it is difficult to give a totally definitive list of signs to look out for but we’ve highlighted some of the most common ones that we’ve seen arise time and time again.
They include but are not limited to:
Stress and anxiety
In our opinion, one of the secrets to success when it comes to change fatigue is to embrace it. This might sound counterintuitive, but by fully understanding change fatigue, and accepting that change as a normal part of startup life, you become aware of it and are able to intervene early to help your employees thrive.
Vyou CEO Jon Stanners said: “For me it starts with knowing that many changes are all realities of growing start-ups and it’s normal - not something one can change and shouldn’t - it’s the process of learning - but it does need managing.”
Managing change fatigue is key - but with such a wide range of symptoms, it can be really challenging to spot. This is where the Vyou platform comes in.
Vyou is a validated and tested Work Wellness Platform to help start-ups ease the hardships experienced at the early stages of their endeavour.
Vyou provides team overview insights (and provides team members with their own individual insights) through self-reflection tools and feedback loops. These insights give leaders real-time overviews of how their team is feeling, and can help to highlight areas that they can help to address before they become issues.
Vyou also offers tailored pathways, one to one human coaching and a webinar series to help leaders grow their people, culture and business.
To find out more about what Vyou can do for managing change fatigue - and for your company success - or to book a no-obligation chat with one of the Vyou team members, get in touch through the ‘get started’ button.