Inoculating Against Change Fatigue: Leadership Through Turbulence

While leadership through a pandemic is largely unchartered terrain for this generation, these tactics can be drawn on to allow leaders and their teams to move past survival to build resilience and to reignite energy and focus.

Andrea Plotnick, Ph.D., Board and Executive Solutions
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As humans, we have an evolutionary need for a certain amount of predictability: our very survival depended on knowing where to find our food source, who our enemies were, and how to say safe. Change disrupts predictability. Massive change massively impacts predictability. While societal shifts such as Black Lives Matter and the resultant emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and a focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues have brought about needed change, the pandemic has also caused seismic change at every level and in an accelerated way. 

Pandemic-related change is happening globally, organizationally, and personally. To some degree or another, our social lives have been impacted. Our physical or psychological health and the health of those around us may have been impacted. Our children’s education may have been impacted. Our religious or spiritual practices may have been impacted. How we approach the most basic errands has been impacted. Layer on top of that our organizational responses to the pandemic that have accelerated digital transformation, introduced new leadership competencies, forced difficult decisions, and required new skill sets to lead remotely. The amount of change is enormous and nonstop. As leaders, we are weary of the cumulative effect of change, and our teams are feeling the same.  It has been business as unusual for a long time and there is very little left in our “coping tanks” to take on more change.

Many organizational leaders are struggling with how to help themselves and help their depleted teams.  They are wrestling with maintaining optimism, motivation, productivity and focus, but not at the expense of demonstrating empathy and deeper connections. While leadership through a pandemic is largely unchartered terrain for this generation, several tactics can be drawn on to allow leaders and their teams to move past survival to build resilience and to reignite energy and focus. These tactics will continue to be important as organizations continue to grapple with transformation post-pandemic.

1. Tap into, or build, an internal locus of control 

Undoubtedly, with uncertainty rampant and organizational changes in overload, there are a number of factors impacting us that are out of our control.   It is well researched that perceived lack of control over extended periods is psychologically taxing and can lead to dysfunctional mindsets and behaviours, such as frustration, blame, lack of motivation, lack of trying, diminished productivity, learned helplessness, and even burnout and substance abuse.

The key to using up less of our psychological reserves and building the resilience to navigate intense uncertainty and change is the ability to tune out extraneous noise and to regain some control, whether it is at work or at home. Carve out those opportunities, find a focus. Even small successes enhance a sense of control and allow for a sense of accomplishment and optimism, serving as the antidote to learned helplessness. With optimism and mastery comes the willingness to experiment, critical to the transformation that will be required in the future. 

The leadership challenge is to find the personal focus to allow for mastery and a sense of control, to create the conditions that allow for others’ individual success, and to connect the dots between effort and outcomes.

2. Take control of the narrative

Accommodating change – big or small, self- or other-initiated, positive or negative—draws from the same reserves. It is easy to feel overwhelmed.  It doesn’t help when perpetual news feeds begin to create a negative mental ticker tape. With so much change happening at so many different levels, one of the best tactics a leader can use to buffer others from being overwhelmed and to help them move forward is to cut through the clutter. Avoid rolling out disjointed changes that take up a disproportionate psychological effort to absorb. Package multiple small changes into one unified vision and delay those changes that are not on the critical path; find the overarching theme, paint a vision, and link everything back. Focus on priorities, focus on the end game, and report on progress. Create simplified messaging. 

The leadership challenge is to create a vision and a storyline that explicitly draws the link between changes and the vision to minimize the draw on psychological reserves. It should paint the picture for where you are headed – even if it is in broad strokes, why you are headed there, how you will get there, and why others should join in.  

3. Create a psychologically safe place to “unload”

Back not too far in time, there was a clear delineation between work and home.  How one chose to show up at work was a highly curated “professional” fraction of who one was as a person. While working remotely has limited some connectivity, the pandemic has also accelerated the breakdown of boundaries. We have been invited virtually into others’ homes and lives, and we’re connecting in new and different ways. At the same time, a focus on inclusive leadership has emphasized the need to create a safe place for people to bring their authentic selves to work and pushed for the need to have deeper conversations and seek understanding. The same principles apply when helping others adapt to change. 

The leadership challenge is to create a virtual community square – a psychologically safe place where people can connect, unload, name the elephant in the room, voice their concerns without judgment, share perspectives, and support each other. By allowing the airing of concerns in a more controlled way, leaders can watch out for dysfunctional or worrisome mindsets and behaviours so that they can influence more productive outcomes.   

4. Use a V formation

When birds fly south, they have a unique way of supporting each other. When the lead bird becomes tired, it drops back and another takes its place.  This isn’t done silently; anyone who has stood near a flying flock has heard the noise. Birds are in constant communication.  Collective leadership means being able and willing to voice when support is needed, being attuned to others’ needs, and being prepared to spot others who may need to coast so that they can rejuvenate.

The leadership challenge is to build the collective, foster social involvement, and put in place processes to ensure that it is psychologically safe to take a break. It requires empathy, understanding, and an astute eye to pick up on where support is needed.    
Inoculating your leadership with these four tactics can help minimize change fatigue so that you’re well-positioned post-pandemic.

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