How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level. First, pause to acknowledge when a significant change is happening, and the discomfort that comes with it. Second, adopt a learning mindset and model for your team that it’s normal to be continuously evolving, especially in the face of ongoing uncertainty. Third, make plans, but accept that you and your team will likely deviate from them. Lastly, invest in simple rituals that the team can do together to reduce stress.
Re-orgs, leadership transitions, new technologies. Pre-Covid, many employees already were experiencing change fatigue, defined as feeling apathetic towards or overwhelmed by too many organizational changes in a row.
When Covid hit, everything changed. We remember a tweet from digital health consultant Simon Terry that resonated with us: “Change fatigue. Resilience fatigue. Agility fatigue. WFH fatigue. Video-conference fatigue. Online schooling fatigue. Restriction fatigue. Conflict fatigue. Fatigue fatigue. 2020 – the international year of fatigue.” The heightened level of uncertainty in both our work and home lives pushed many of us into change exhaustion. Gartner found that employees’ ability to cope with change in 2020 was at 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level.
Based on research we did for our book Big Feelings, here are four practices leaders can use to help their team or organization collectively combat change exhaustion.
Pause to acknowledge change, and the discomfort that comes with it.
Navigating uncertainty requires that we push back against our natural impulse to run from discomfort. When faced with anxiety, we tend to immediately jump into action-mode. Psychologists call this “anxious fixing,” and it doesn’t help us, or the people around us. Rather than addressing the root cause of our anxiety, we work ourselves into exhaustion trying to find immediate relief.
Say a team is changing its return-to-office plan. If you’re a leader, you may react by trying to drum up excitement and send a flurry of emails with new dates and timelines, without stopping to acknowledge the emotional toll the shift might be taking on your people. Chances are your team is weary of new announcements and another plan for coming back to the office. Make it a priority to set aside time in an upcoming meeting for people to share their feelings, voice concerns, and ask questions.
This practice can be helpful outside of Covid-related uncertainty, like when someone joins the team. Gartner’s study found that smaller scale, personal changes — getting assigned to a new manager or moving to a new team — were 2.5 times more fatiguing than larger transformational changes like mergers or acquisitions. But how often do leaders pause when changing team assignments and give voice to the discomfort that employees may feel from these changes? We recommend having an employee’s former manager meet with both the employee and the employee’s new manager to talk through the details of the change, acknowledge the anxiety the employee may be feeling, and create space for the employee to share their emotions and ask questions.
Adopt the mantra, “I am a person who is learning _______.”
Sitting with uncertainty helps us confront the fact that we don’t have all the answers. Of course, that can be frightening, especially if you’re someone who likes to feel in control. To help yourself and your team shift from anxiety to a growth mindset, reframe the situation. When we tell ourselves, “I am a person learning to ______” versus “I can’t do this” or “I need to have this all figured out already,” we start to see ourselves as empowered agents of change.
Here are a few examples of how you can reframe the not knowing:
- Instead of “I don’t know enough to manage people in a remote environment. I can’t do this,” tell yourself, “I’m learning to be a great manager in a remote environment.”
- Instead of “I’m a nervous wreck about doing in-person presentations again” tell yourself, “I’m learning how to present in front of live audiences again.”
We recommend doing this as an exercise with your team by asking them to fill in the phrase, “I am a person learning to____” or “We are a team learning to _____.” It can be helpful to hear what others are navigating, so individual team members feel less alone and can more easily support each other. It can also be useful to better understand each person’s comfort level with uncertainty. (You can take our uncertainty tolerance assessment here.) If you know everyone on your team prefers to avoid uncertainty, for example, you can take extra steps to ensure that everyone understands the path forward.
Make a plan from which you will deviate.
In the face of uncertainty, we have to work extra hard to figure out what we should do next. Our brains are hardwired to recognize patterns. When confronted with a known challenge (e.g. filling out a quarterly report), we can simply think, “Here’s how I did this last time. I’ll do that again.”
Uncertainty breaks that mechanism. “You feel you have to pay closer attention to everything that’s going on, because you’re not confident about what you should do,” psychologist Dr. Molly Sands told us. “That’s why uncertainty is so exhausting.”
That’s also why it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis: our minds are swamped as they zig and zag through a million future possibilities. So how can you figure out a path forward under these circumstances?
At NASA, Dr. Laura Gallaher told us, teams refer to plans as “Plans from which we deviate.” Dr. Gallaher explained, “The benefit of planning is doing the thinking around what we will do when something happens. The value is in the process and the journey, not in the specific agenda.” In other words, the key is to plan, but not see our plans as set in stone. Instead, view them as reassurance that we’re prepared to face what comes next.
We recommend using similar language with your teams. By adopting a more flexible mindset while planning, you can help your people get less frustrated when things inevitably shift and be more willing to see the journey as a learning experience.
Invest in rituals.
Studies show that rituals or habits can go a long way towards reducing our stress levels during times of uncertainty. In fact, researchers have found that it doesn’t even matter what the ritual is. Simply doing the same thing at the same time can improve our mental health. Don’t believe us? That’s okay, studies have also proven that rituals help people feel better, even when they don’t believe that rituals work!
It can be hard to stick to rituals as an individual within a larger organization. We’ve often added meditation or lunch breaks to our calendars, only to have another meeting scheduled over them or to find ourselves unable to tear ourselves away from our constantly pinging inboxes.
Organizational consultant Amy Bonsall, who helps organizations collectively achieve well-being, suggests teams ask: How can we incorporate rituals as part of our days? Bonsall says it doesn’t matter what specifically teams do, as long as it is collective and centers on what matters most to that team (for example: energy boosting, creativity, or connection). She suggests starting each meeting with a short centering practice, like collectively closing your eyes and breathing for a minute. Or doing a daily 15-minute stand up where everyone shares something that is inspiring them.
There is no doubt that uncertainty is anxiety-inducing. The key is to not let employees struggle alone, but to collectively acknowledge and address the challenges. With the right tools, you can help your team gain confidence in your ability to better handle whatever comes next together — whether that means establishing a “plan from which you’ll deviate” or putting into practice a few new rituals (even if you don’t believe in them).