Beware Transformation Fatigue: Remember to Bring Staff on the Journey, Too

Written by Deborah Young, Managing Partner at Chaucer.


Sometimes a change at the top can bring a burst of energy – new faces with a new strategy and their own game plan for making it work. As with the cabinet office under a new Prime Minister, it can be exciting to lead this journey to the new world.

What about the rest of the organisation, though? How do the frontline staff feel about yet another change? What does it mean for the day-to-day lives of Dennis in the sales team or Jenny on reception?

“It’s awfully hard for managers and staff to get motivated when they believe that the latest project from on high is going to die just like the last one – no matter what they do,” writes leadership strategy expert Brent Gleeson in Forbes. “Fear makes change intensely personal. People fear for their income. They worry about their families. They wonder what will happen to their careers. When people are afraid, they literally can’t hear or think as well. It’s much harder for them to take in important information when their minds are reeling.”

The mark of a good leader is to take their people on the journey with them, to help them understand the reasons behind the change. It’s important to make sure the rest of the workforce will be happy to trust and follow the new leadership team, and the best way to do this is to remember what it is we are seeking to alter. It’s easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees, to get lost in the details and forget why transformation was needed in the first place. And this can leave staff feeling fatigued with all that change because there is too much going on that they don’t understand.

Use common language and build authentic relationships

Many phases of industry disruption end up with an overestimation of short-term impact and an underestimation of the long-term impact. Any transformation programme is a multi-year journey, which can lead to long-term staff becoming complacent or suffering transformation fatigue by all the talk of change. They want to see and understand impact for all the talk, but without a clear, transparent communications plan you risk losing their attention – or worse, creating more disengagement in the workforce.

I spend my days talking transformation with clients, and can see familiar patterns forming in both those change programmes that work, and those that don’t. To new executives, I offer four tips:

  1. Remember that not everything from the old regime is bad! Take some time to analyse what’s working well already lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.
  2.  Also take some time to understand your people and what they’ve been going through, especially in cases of transformation fatigue. Listening is just as important as talking when it comes to communications, and the strength of your communications will make or break a transformation programme.
  3.  Ensure the leadership team has the space to learn how you like to work and how you think. Just as you need to bring staff on the journey with you, you shouldn’t assume leadership will blindly follow a new strategy.
  4.  Align the new and existing leadership teams by building real and authentic relationships. The workforce will be able to see through any fake alignments, and will be more likely to follow leadership that clearly agree and buy-in to the direction of strategy.

And ditch the jargon!

But perhaps the biggest thing to remember when selling the new strategy to employees is to speak in terms they understand and engage with. A creative communication artist recently told me about his experience helping the corporate sector, and it centres around the language of leadership being somewhat incompatible with the general public. Throw away the “corporatese” and jargon, and learn how to translate conceptual words like “strategy” and “values” into language that fleet manager Jo can relate to.

Transformation is often unwieldy and faceless, and can fail through a lack of momentum when the frontline doesn’t understand and starts to passively resist the change due to transformation fatigue. Here’s a two-minute challenge to help you see how in tune the leadership is with the general workforce.

Ask yourself:

  • Where is your company heading, and why?
  • How will frontline staff understand and be motivated by this?
  • Would your leadership peers agree with your answers?