Nearly eight months into the pandemic, mired in the economic and emotional toll of COVID-19, businesses are still struggling to find their footing. The irony of the Coronavirus is that, on one hand, it has created a sense of urgency in the marketplace and, on the other, it has dampened business’ ability to act.
More disconcerting still, COVID-19 has made the future state into a moving target. Leaders and their teams are growing weary in their efforts to track against it. Unsure of what or how to prioritize, organizations are seeing key initiatives stall out or lose traction. Change fatigue is setting in like never before.
Even so, it is possible – and necessary – to make headway. Business’ renewed focus on large scale change initiatives such as digital transformation, workforce health and safety efforts, and business process improvements require thoughtful action – just at the time when our capacity for clear thinking may be at its lowest.
To get teams back on track, leaders need to first understand why change efforts are particularly difficult to navigate right now.
Behavioral and neuroscience tells us that dealing with complex changes, difficult decisions, and predictive data analyses causes fatigue. When this condition is borne of change-related stress, it is known as change fatigue – a phenomenon much of the world is experiencing to some degree or another these days. From leadership to the front lines, change fatigue is affecting the workforce at large. You can see it in the distracted actions of your teams struggling to juggle new restrictions in their lives, new demands at work, and new duties at home.
COVID makes everything harder
Whatever inclination for change an organization might have had before, COVID-19’s continued presence heaps a heavy psychological burden on top of those aspects of change that can typically threaten progress. This means that what might normally overwhelm our efforts – unforeseen delays, inconsistent data, strategic conflicts, and leadership challenges – are more likely to do so during this period of upheaval. Our capacity for change is in danger of reaching its saturation point.
Prolonged Uncertainty Is Disorienting
The rate and frequency of change brought on by the pandemic makes it difficult to keep perspective. Shifting priorities and success metrics are confusing and often contradictory. The experience of managing a change initiative during COVID-19 is especially disorienting, much like wandering through a corn maze: We’re not sure where the end is or where the next turn will take us. We don’t know if we’re progressing or re-tracing our steps. When we lose sight of the objective or feel like our efforts may not have any effect, we tend to quit trying, do only the minimum, or detach from the outcome.
The Brain Can Only Handle So Much Complex Change
Our biology also has a lot to do with how much change we can handle. We have the capacity to manage a lot of concurrent change when it is pre-programmed or when we have previous experience with it. The “older” part of our evolutionary brain implements routine tasks with ease or, as the saying goes, “with our eyes closed.” In comparison, the “newer” part – the prefrontal cortex – makes more complex decisions. It utilizes reason, performs analysis, and ultimately, inhibits the old brain’s auto-pilot responses in favor of better ones. This new brain is an easily depleted resource that has finite capacity before it needs rest. In this COVID-era of unprecedented personal and professional decision-making overload, our new brains are taxed to their limit.
The ambiguity of the moment is both tiring and distracting. To refocus teams and jumpstart change efforts, leaders need to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible and start tracking against more tangible and attainable measures of progress.
1: Revisit the Why
Change leaders grow weary from addressing what can feel like never ending waves of resistance. To counter this energy, elevate perspective by reminding the team to focus on the importance of the program at hand. Help them remember how their work benefits employees and customers, why the change still matters, and why they need to be engaged.
Last year, a client of ours made the decision to revamp the core structure of their business in an effort to safeguard profitability against economic volatility. When the pandemic hit, the workforce was reminded that the financial ramifications of the current situation were exactly why they were engaged in the restructuring effort in the first place. This real-time “why” motivated the team to accelerate their transformation efforts and overcome the delays that normally stall progress.
Elevate perspective by reminding the team to focus on the importance of the program at hand.
2: Focus on the opportunity
A lot of energy is being lost to negative “what-if” scenarios right now. Though it is always important to scan the environment for potential threats and opportunities, focusing on too many threats decreases our capacity to be creative. Instead, channel the anxiety of the moment into productive consideration. What kinds of opportunities for growth, stability, or innovation will this change initiative enable? What has this change revealed about our organization and its capabilities that can be addressed? Thinking about how to pursue those opportunities will help align the team around a future ideal even when the specifics of the future state aren’t clear.
Another client, deep in the trenches of its digital transformation, found that the significance of the initiative had become somewhat perfunctory – even within the team charged with supporting it. Brainstorming what could be hindering progress, the team decided to look at their work with “new” eyes. Team members detached and re-imagined, then they re-invented themselves to better articulate their role, authority, and capability.
This makeover was galvanizing. Employees seldom have the opportunity to decide on and promote their own narrative around the value of their work. (This is typically decided for them.) The opportunity to define the impact of their role in supporting this mission critical effort gave the team the clarity of purpose it had been missing. Both the effort and the team leading it were energized as a result.
Thinking about how to pursue opportunity will help align the team around a future ideal even when the specifics of the future state aren’t clear.
3: Think milestones instead of timelines
As timeline-based measures are frustratingly unpredictable right now, leaders can restore a sense of progress by switching to a different unit of measurement. Focus on milestones to help your team get a sense of when the next meaningful action will be taken. For example, it may be difficult for your company to predict when it can return to work at full production capacity. So instead, focus on the milestones that will mark action – like the metrics state and city governments are watching for to mark indications of the virus’ presence or dissipation.
Celebrating milestones also communicates progress – even if it is a milestone that has been passed before. Recognizing how much smarter or more receptive the organization is now can be especially appreciated in this environment where everything, in general, feels harder to accomplish.
Focus on the milestones that will mark action.
The strain of chronic change fatigue will burden the workplace at large for a good while longer. To succeed in this turbulent environment, it is critical that leaders who are pursuing change initiatives understand how this turbulence impacts their teams so they can help their teams navigate through it. The upside to building this resiliency is a team that is better equipped to meet the challenge of change now and into the future. This is a valuable skill considering that by most estimates, we’re heading into another rough season of pandemic-related challenges and the disruptions it most certainly will bring.