Research shows that 70 percent of transformation efforts fail often due to change fatigue1. Change fatigue is a 'general sense of apathy or passive resignation towards organisational changes by individuals or teams'2. Litigation fatigue, compassion fatigue and change fatigue are examples of overexposure to repetitive pressures that lead to exhaustion, disengagement, and overwhelm.
In a recent article by Reg Polson4 (CEO of Polson Nexus - an HR Recruiting firm) he highlighted a recent interview on ABC National Radio by Alan Finkle, Australia’s Chief Scientist, on change. You can listen to the podcast here:3
His viewpoint was that imagination precedes invention and that leaders need to be well equipped to manage change. Reg’s summary of the interview highlighted 3 approaches to change that do not work:
We should not promise our organisations that "everything is going to be great when we get the new technology". There is no silver bullet. Every change has its downsides. If people are not prepared for these they will be disappointed and resist the next change.
Is being overly negative about change where everyone just gives up. (Consider reading the book, “The Handmaid’s Tale” or viewing it on SBS. It is chilling in that everything that happens in one story has already happened in isolation). We need to be aware of the risks and manage them, not run away from them.
This is the belief that everything in the past was great and we should return there. This is a strongly held view by people who are threatened by change either because they are insecure, or have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. We need to acknowledge that the past had a lot of good things, but that 'today' is the 'good old days' of tomorrow…
The opportunity for leaders sits in their ability to remain nimble, and resist being overly attached to any one process or technology. To be willing to take on (or discard) thinking that will embrace the inevitable and immediate changes ahead.
Being nimble also requires the ability to identify risks, anticipate problems, and manage expectations before implementing and adopting change.
More than new technology or funky software is the power of fluidity in human behaviour. We are genetically wired to be adaptable for both survival and high performance.
For leaders to thrive under change, they need to invest into their human capital by consciously and deliberately developing their team’s resilience and nimbility.
Foster resilient thinking
Being able to turn challenges into opportunities, and turn stress and tension into energy and enthusiasm is the foundation to building Pressure Proof leaders and teams that achieve more in high pressure environments.
In 1915, Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe an animal's response to threats5. Over time, it was noticed that people also have the same ‘fight or flight’ response, where they would either recoil and avoid, or react and respond, when faced with threats and challenges. This physiological ‘fight or flight’ reaction is inbuilt into your physiological hardware and becomes an unconscious behavioural habit.
When new leaders are placed under pressure, when teams are given multiple projects, when customer service deals with a series of difficult interactions, they will default back into their most ingrained ‘fight or flight’ responses.
Many businesses, organisations and schools provide technical and procedural training so that people are able to fulfil their roles, They are, however, often at a loss on how to help them apply these skills when pressure builds and distracts their focus and decision making. It is at this stage when one's most ingrained ‘fight or flight’ responses surface and take over.
In the workplace, a ‘flight’ response may surface in procrastination, prioritising easier tasks, avoiding confrontation, or waiting for someone else to resolve an issue. The flight response resembles a retreat from the challenge or threat.
The ‘flight’ response can also manifest in people waiting for someone to show them the solution, provide the answer, or ‘spoon feed’ them the steps. Externally, they might be viewed as lazy or incompetent, but they are just stuck in an automated and unconscious ‘flight’ reaction to pressure that has never been modified.
Alternatively, a ‘fight’ response may surface in proactive problem solving, taking on responsibility, creating transparent accountability, and breaking down what might feel like an overwhelming task into bite-sized action steps.
The ‘fight’ response is about immediate and proactive action. Not being afraid to get your hands dirty and do the ground work. To be innovative, creative, and be prepared to risk failure in order to achieve your outcome.
Dr Hans Selye discovered that one’s experience of stressful situations differs depending on whether their impulsive responses are positive or negative.6
So, before introducing new targets for your teams, before raising your standards of customer connectivity and service, before taking on new projects, before inducting new leaders into their roles, and before you hold the launch meeting, the motivational speech, or the welcome back breakfast, consider how you need your teams to operate when their pressure doubles.
Will your teams default to a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ pattern? When the workload increases, client demands escalate, and changes occur, will they automatically kick in to being proactive and time efficient, or will they default to scattered, rushed and inefficient?
No matter how much technical training you provide, a person’s inbuilt pressure response will always drive their personal productivity and leadership style.
We live and work in a time of excessive volume. There is more work expected of you, higher standards of delivery, greater diversity of tasks, and multiple roles to fulfil on the same salary. If you feel like you are sometimes drowning in work and always chasing your tail, then you are not alone. Simply trying to work longer and harder is a short term solution that eventually leads to burnout. Volume has changed how we operate, so to thrive in this environment you need to first disrupt the way that you think and work.
Research estimates that, in 2017, about 289 million emails are sent each day, and 2.4 million emails are sent every second.7 Facebook adds 500,000 new users every day; 6 new profiles every second, generating about 4 million likes every minute.8 There is around 6,000 tweets per second on Twitter, resulting in about 200 billion tweets per year.9. Senior executives now receive 200 or more emails per day.11
The volume of stimulation bidding for our attention is overwhelmingly nauseating. This, however, is only the surface problem.
A lot of people today are trying to cope by working at breakneck speeds, multi-tasking their worlds, connecting to their family via video chat, and then falling asleep, exhausted, in front of the television.
The true problem is that this pattern is becoming the new normal.
It is too easy to follow the crowds, the team, the culture, the marketing, and be seduced to keep up with the Jones’s by attacking volume the same way that everyone else does - and running faster on the treadmill.
It was Albert Einstein who famously said, way before the invention of social media, mobile phones and email, that "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them".10
Blindly following the masses and working the same way that they do can have dire consequences. In Australia, workplace stress is costing the economy $14.81 billion a year, and 3.2 days per worker are lost each year through workplace stress.12
Like everyone else, when you get to work you react to email, create lists, work in open space offices, deal with interruptions, and then take work home (either physically or mentally).
Just because everyone works this way, doesn’t means it’s the more effective way to work.
The renowned French Naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, conducted an experiment with processionary caterpillars which derive their name from their habit of following a lead caterpillar, each with its eyes half closed and head fitted snugly against the rear end of the preceding caterpillar.
He took a flowerpot and placed a number of caterpillars in single-file around the circumference of the pot's rim. Each caterpillar's head touched the caterpillar in front of it. Fabre then placed the caterpillars' favourite food in the middle of the circle created by the caterpillars' procession around the rim of the flowerpot. Each caterpillar followed the one ahead thinking that it was heading for the food.
After a week of this activity, the caterpillars started to drop dead because of exhaustion and starvation. Food was there in reach, but they were kindly following the group, so they were locked into a fatal outcome.13
Stop following the crowds.
To achieve more in today's high volume environment, you need to disrupt yourself first, here are two tips to start this process:
- Fixed outcomes, flexible processes
You need to break habits and patterns of familiarity. Consider if your approach is a result of habit or is it specifically designed to get the best results. To your processes get the best outcome and open your mind to new ideas or are they followed because ‘it is just how I have always done things’? Evolve your problem solving process.
- Same problem, different solution
You need to stretch your comfort zone. You may be playing too safe, too predictable, or too much like everyone else. Look at your work process from a totally difference perspective so that you can see new solutions and ideas. Consider if you are too close to the problems to be objective in how best to solve them.
"The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
 Perlman, Ken. "Change Fatigue: Taking Its Toll on Your Employees?". Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkotter/2011/09/15/can-i-use-this-method-for-change-in-my-organization/#244b51ca1ce6