Change is inevitable in life, in industry and certainly in a learning organization. Without change, advancements and innovations don’t happen, and efficiencies and corrections are not made. However, the rate of change learning professionals experience may be faster than what might be comfortable. A new study polling a global sample of 4,800 leaders from eePulse Inc., a technology and research-consulting service, states that the rate of organizational change continues to rise, and experts say the need to continually adjust and cope is draining leaders’ energy and decreasing their confidence.
“I’ve done a number of very large-scale studies with thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of employees and looked at what predicts long-term performance, turnover, performance appraisal, absenteeism, etc., and it boils down to this idea of energy—that people are energized by their work,” said Theresa Welbourne, Ph.D., president and CEO of eePulse and adjunct faculty at University of Michigan. Welbourne has created a poll that measures people’s energy at work. By analyzing leader data, she has shown that leader energy has been going down over time. “We’ve also been tracking leadership confidence, and that also has gone down over the past two years. The amount of change is going up, and that’s making leaders feel less confident and less energized.”
Coping with the lightning speed of change isn’t easy. Welbourne said that “the stacking work syndrome” has created frustration as workers take on other people’s responsibilities, accept more and more projects every day and don’t enjoy a sense of completion.
“In order to get people to change their behavior, you need a high level of anxiety-producing events, but you have to balance that with ways that people can cope with that,” Welbourne said. “Coping can come in a lot of different mechanisms. If you look at the leadership data where they’re losing confidence, they don’t understand the environment, and things are changing a lot around them. It can be very destructive to people. When we talk about coping, we talk about finding small wins, small things that you can control.
“It’s like you’ve got 20 stacks around you and instead of completing anything, people are just doing a little bit from every stack,” Welbourne added. “‘I’m making people happy by satisfying them, but I never get done with anything.’ I’m coming from reading 200 pages of comments from leaders, and this is what they’re talking about. Instead of having 20 projects, pick three. Get one done, celebrate completion, and it makes people feel like they have some control over what’s happening. We have to think about backing off a little bit because when leaders are overloaded, that’s when I get worried. I’m asking about their confidence in themselves, their vision, their ability to execute and know if they have the right people. Those are the people who are going down.”
Other small coping mechanisms include simple communication. Leaders should listen to employees and provide feedback, such as implementing employee suggestions or fixing a piece of broken office equipment that has caused irritation or hindered productivity.
“I think that organizational change seems to be increasing beyond any rate that people would have predicted,” said Donnee Ramelli, president of General Motors University, General Motors. “But there are a number of ways that we’ve chosen to deal with it that have proven to be successful. You have to make sure that people are engaged in the right kind of objectives to create the right kind of output or success, and have a chance to understand and discuss what’s happening. At General Motors University we make sure that we have an intense focus on key objectives that will turn around different areas that we’re trying to turn around. There are four areas that we generally think about: product excellence, revitalizing sales and marketing strategy, significantly reducing costs and improving quality and dealing with health care and legacy cost issues.”
When General Motors launches new vehicles each year, corresponding members at GMU visit 7,000 dealers and roughly 140 employees in each dealership to show them how to sell, service and deal with the new vehicles. Ramelli said that promoting a certain work ethic and fostering focus and a connection between people, the products and the organization’s need for strategic change is energizing. That energy can drive innovation, he said. GMU staff meetings are opportunities to dig into new processes and uncover the ways and means to encourage and pursue innovative thinking. “If people are not sure that what they’re doing is useful or helpful, I think there is a loss of energy and lack of confidence,” Ramelli said.