Too much change? Not enough!

Change fatigue in organisation is a problem, but are people really tired of change?

The consultant’s cliché is that people do not mind change, but hate being changed. If only you engage people around a shared higher purpose and involve them in shaping their own change, they will not only stop resisting, they will actively embrace change.

If only it were that simple.

Do not get me wrong: engaging and inspiring people and having them retain as much autonomy as can be made practical is the only way to do classic change management effectively and ethically. My objection is to the use of the term ‘change’ for operations that are essentially unimaginative cost-cutting or even “negative recruitment”.

I believe it is time to stop using the term ‘change’ to the types of reorganisations that have become common in the last 15 years. Let us examine what they represent instead.

Take the case of a large, internationally operating bank or insurance company. Fifteen years ago, it would employ well over 100,000 people, almost half of them in the back-office, and with many employees still working in branches in the high street. Its reputation would still be intact. It would offer careers as well as jobs. It would pay very well and job security would still have been very high, although in other industries such as for instance manufacturing this security would already have started to erode.

Fast forward to today: you will find a much reduced workforce, who have experienced perhaps as many as five major reorganisations in the past fifteen years, roughly one every three years. Today, this pace seems even to increase to the point that reorganisations actually overlap. The company has become a chain smoker, smoking the organisation down to the filter, an anorexic, sacrificing health in the pursuit of somebody else’s idea of beauty.

Are people in organisations tired of this? Without a doubt. Are they tired of change? On the contrary. Change would be great. What people object to and get tired of, is what does not change: constant reorganisation without hope of improvement. Attrition is what tires people out. Nobody wants to be a lemon.

To help them cope with unpleasant events, people need honesty. Calling five consecutive cost-cutting operations ‘change’ is disingenuous and will erode support. Moreover, it often hits the people who stay harder than the people who leave, further weakening morale.

Years ago, during a large reorganisation, I personally witnessed an employee crying because she was not eligible for the severance package, but had to stay instead. Although at first glance this seems peculiar it actually makes perfect sense. The person saw pleasant colleagues leave, her workload increase, personal space and autonomy all but disappear, all the while realising that in a few years time it would still be her turn, when she would be older and more beaten.

Did a large bank have any other options in the last 15 years instead of cost-cutting by dismissing people? I believe going for actual change would have been a better alternative.

While still strong and rich, powered by a proud and highly motivated workforce, it would have been possible to transform into the first financial institution to bring fin-tech to the masses, it could have invented the blockchain, it could have decided to unflinchingly serve the interests of its customers, which would have prevented the financial crisis, which would have prevented the sovereign debt crisis, which could have prevented Brexit… you get the point.

Instead many companies first condemned large groups of people to an untimely career end and then subjected them to the ultimate indignity of making them dig their own graves, by making people reapply for their own positions, lightly tweaked to satisfy labour law. The organisations shrunk before improving, demoralising the ones who had to stay and then it found it lacked both the strength, health and beauty to achieve any meaningful transformation, necessitating subsequent rounds of cuts.

Change is when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; consecutive cost-cutting and turning permanent jobs into flexible contracts is actually austerity, which is essentially overdue cost management and a temporary measure at best. It is a terrible habit that is easy to pick up, but very hard to lose.