Reducing Stress in Transformation Programmes

Reducing Stress in Transformation Programmes

Over many decades of working with organisations navigating transformation, I often hear staff talk about change fatigue.

Change fatigue is associated with an expectation to take on many new working practices without being deeply engaged in them. These expectations frequently result from a strategic initiative developed at the executive level, where a knowledge of day-to-day operations are scant. The result is increased stress on staff, which can lead to burnout.

So why are essential changes not implemented at a more sustainable pace avoiding this suffering?

One of the main root causes is that new executives often step into their role and are expected to deliver a sizable strategic change. As the tenure at this level is relatively short, these changes tend to be forced dictates rather than collectively agreed activities.

According to a Korn Ferry study, the average tenure of an industrial CEO is around the six-year mark. CIOs, the gatekeeper of technology and innovation strategy, is less at four years, and the CMO, responsible for commercial growth and communication, is under three years. So, the time frame for change programmes is short.

Terrible repercussions result from enforced change programmes as leadership teams start to see diminishing returns on their strategic imperatives. In a recent Scottish Enterprise report, around 80% of digitally related transformation initiatives failed to deliver their benefits target. These projects are almost always initiated by senior leaders and delivered by external experts. Staff, on the other hand, are expected to adapt rather than engage, giving rise to stress.  

Yet, despite these gloomy statistics, change and evolution are perfectly natural, healthy states for an organisation. Staff flourish when they learn new things, develop wider relationships, and work on new projects. Nothing is more soul-destroying than doing the same thing day in and day out, so change and evolution are good things. The problem only occurs when change is forced.

To be clear about these terms, engagement is different to buy-in. Buy-in happens after an event has been decided upon and is primarily about coercively making sure staff do as you want them to do. Buy-in is about compliance and obedience to authority rather than working toward organisational agreed consensus.

Engagement, on the other hand, is much more collective. When leaders focus on engagement, enabling people to wake up each morning knowing they can do a great job and to feel accomplished and supported at the end of the day – bottom-line results will follow.

Here are six things to consider when thinking about engagement:

  1. Firstly, have honest conversations early rather than sitting on critical issues, hoping they’ll disappear, or you’ll miraculously find the answer. Doing either of these is linked to your ego and doomed to failure. Openness creates trust, and trust leads to performance every time. Withholding information builds mistrust and dis-ease in your organisation. Mistrust leads to poor performance every time.

  2. Get everyone talking about innovation and improvement. David Cooperrider, Professor at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, USA is one of the developers of Appreciative Enquiry, a group collaboration approach to innovation. He said that those topics we speak about grow, whilst those topics we avoid diminish. So, if you have your whole organisation talking about a topic, nine times out of ten, you’ll get positive developments.

  3. Once everyone talks about essential topics, the green shoots of change appear. They need to be nurtured, not dismissed. So, think your responses to green shoots carefully. 

  4. Measure often and adjust your actions accordingly. Measuring is about understanding whether actions taken are working or not. Share the results, good and bad because openness builds trust, and trust breeds performance.

  5. We’re getting to the end of the list, and this one is about getting internal and external sponsors involved Get these groups to provide leadership and give feed-back and encouragement. There is nothing more demoralising than working flat out on an innovative, creative, and economically beneficial project, only to find your stakeholders have other priorities. They appear disinterested, unresponsive, or just plain bored. So, get the support of your stakeholder group before you kick off any work. Make sure they know what is expected of them. Be explicit about what you want them to do. Knowing that stakeholders are supportive generates more open conversations, which builds trust, and you know what trust creates? Performance!

  6. Number six is the most difficult, but if you can build a culture of accepting self-reflection, you’re onto a winner. Self-reflection includes challenging your working practices to improve them. To do this, eradicating blame and fault is critical.

You’ll have noticed that although we have a list of six points, they heavily influence each other. If one of the six is missing, the others can’t function properly. So, to enable this most potent influencing factor, self-reflection, the five preceding elements must work.

Nothing must be hidden from view, creating safety, communicating constantly, collaborating, and sponsoring leadership creates a fertile environment, and measurement allows for actions leading to growth and prosperity. Self-reflection is like a cell of an organism renewing and supporting the whole.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my exploration of change and influencing factors. Please look through any of my other blogs as well for exciting content. Blog – Woodward Consulting (

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