There’s a miasma that seems to be descending on the general population this summer, with potentially harmful implications for organizations as well.
It’s an emotional fatigue from the recent avalanche of change, shaking core assumptions and traditions upon which normalcy and predictability are grounded. It’s a fatigue that is creating a sense of apathy to problems and encouraging a loss of confidence in institutions. And as it may extend to organizations, their workforces and their constituents. It presents a potentially volatile dynamic to which leadership should respond.
What are we talking about?
- The precedence-shattering Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights, school prayer, and environmental regulation.
- Ten percent inflation rates, the onset of a recession, the puzzling reality of the Great Resignation and rapidly declining consumer confidence.
- Uvalde, Highland Park, the Abe assassination and the inability to contain gun violence.
- Climate change, travel frustrations, housing prices, BA.5, and the unending war in Ukraine.
- The yawning Blue State/Red State divide; the House Select Committee hearings and the eroding sense of trust in democratic principles.
- The mystical images from the Webb Telescope and the unsettling reality of the infinite and the unknown.
- USC and UCLA join the Big Ten.
It’s too much change, too fast. It’s a series of blows to the body politics that are as much exhausting as they are unnerving. The problem is not really the fear of change. Rather it’s the impact of such change, the uncertainties that change creates and the potential it has for undermining reliance on tradition and institutions.
Out of fatigue, we become more willing to accept the unwelcome, and to normalize the unacceptable. There’s less confidence that we can successfully plan for the future so we lose the enthusiasm to do so. Will anything we rely upon remain the same?
This fatigue can also give rise to what Sen. Mitt Romney recently described in an essay as “the powerful impulse to believe what we hope to be the case;” and (paraphrasing Mencken) to seek clear, simple—and wrong—solutions for complex problems.
It’s a fatigue that is especially dangerous for organizations and their constituents.
What’s the point in investing for the future? Everything will change anyway.
Apathy and mistrust infect the workforce culture. Product improvement efforts stall; creativity is stifled; directors disengage; ESG initiatives fade. Managers lead the organization more on a quarter-to-quarter basis and are increasingly susceptible to arguments for short-term uses of corporate capital.
Organizational leaders should be particularly alert to these and other warning signs of change fatigue, wherever they may appear including the boardroom, the C-Suite and employee chat rooms.
This isn’t quite the “crisis of confidence” which President Jimmy Carter famously spoke of 43 summers ago in his “malaise” speech, but it’s pretty close. That was the summer of the Arab oil embargo; of blocks-long lines at the gas station; of canceled family road trips. There was a sense that the country was losing confidence in its ability to direct events and becoming more dependent on forces beyond its ability to control-with a resulting uncertainty of national direction.
President Carter’s solution was to treat the energy crisis as a moral problem, to be resolved by unifying the country around a sense of self-sacrifice for the civic good. But as reasonable as it seemed, Carter’s approach to him was ultimately undermined by the sense that he was criticizing citizens for their own values – that their consumerism and materialism were the most existential threat.
And that’s a valuable historical lesson for organizational leaders as they try to protect the workforce culture from change fatigue. An approach reasonably grounded in durable and credible optimism is likely to have more success than one grounded in morality and personal values.
And it all starts with the proper tone at the top. Where possible, leaders should project confidence in the organization and its ability to control its own destiny. But that optimism must reflect leadership’s sincerity, not Pollyannaism (or worse).
From that could come a compelling long-term vision for the organization, that is communicated in a credible and effective manner throughout the workforce. It also calls on leadership to shift into a fifth gear in terms of their engagement with internal constituencies: more board meetings, not less; meaningful executive leadership team meetings; substantive and sincere town-hall style gatherings with employees. More projection on the future, not just on tomorrow.
It also involves a continuous sharing with all levels of the workforce leadership’s perspective of the industry, and of the organization’s rightful place as that industry evolves. Within the framework of reality, it’s about giving the workforce a sense of excitement and pride in the organization’s future.
A positive organizational culture may come less easily these days, not because the organization itself is less robust, but because of the insidious impact of change fatigue. And that fatigue can undermine the spirit of the workforce and its faith in the future.
Indeed, change is a way of life for any organizational culture, and an unsettling intensity of change may be an inescapable part of the immediate workforce horizon. But it may be countered with a credible leadership message of energy and optimism, emphasizing the organization’s ability to control its own destiny.