How Change Can Replenish—Or Drain—Your Reserves

From Center For Creative Leadership

Change is inherently stressful. But it doesn’t have to be negative.

Each new workplace change — new technology, new co-worker, new job responsibilities — requires you to invest time, effort and energy into adapting. Sometimes, it’s not too taxing; other times change leaves you exhausted, resentful or angry.

It’s not just the size or scope of any given change that has you and your colleagues in reactive mode. Our responses are tied to the cumulative effect of change over time — and whether we have what we need to face them, according to CCL research.

Think of yourself as a bank account. At any point, you only have so many resources saved — energy, attention, and interest that can be put toward the current projects and efforts you face. Every change requires a withdrawal, large or small. The problem comes when you never have a chance to build up your reserves. Even the smallest change or challenge will be felt as overwhelming, or unnecessary, when your capacity feels so limited.

Cumulative Change Research

The recent study is presented in a CCL white paper, Change Comes at a Cumulative Cost: Make it Worth the Investment, by Kristin Cullen-Lester and Bryan Edwards.

The research found that employee attitudes about any given change is tied to this sense of capacity, not just whether a change is inherently “good” or “bad.” The effort required to change and adapt can be offset when employees feel they have the reserves and resources to handle it. They may even gain a beneficial boost from the change, if it replenishes that resource bank.

You can imagine the impact of cumulative negative change: Employees are drained and it is difficult to muster interest, much less enthusiasm, for the work. The research showed that employees who experience more negative change report greater change-related stress, frustration and cynicism and are more likely to plan to leave their job.

Cumulative positive change has the opposite effect, although to a lesser degree. Employees who experience more positive changes report less stress and frustration, lower levels of cynicism regarding future changes and were less likely to leave the organization. Commitment, engagement and excitement are possible because employees have the resources to invest in the organization and the job.

change - positive or negative updaated

How to Handle Workplace Change

What can you do to improve the way you and the people you lead are handling change?

  • First, understand that change is neither good nor bad. Workplace change needs to be understood in its totality. Generally, more change is more stressful than less change. Start to look at whether the net impact of change on people is positive, neutral or negative, based on whether they have the time, tools and energy needed to succeed.
  • Second, recognize the harm in taking away resources. It is more draining to take away resources than it is helpful to add them. In other words, the negatives are stronger than the positives. The more “loss” is involved in change over time, the harder it is for positives to counteract or create the sense of capacity and reserves needed to respond to change with energy and enthusiasm.
  • Third, know your employees. Pay attention to their change history — especially if you are the new manager coming in. Consider how many changes have occurred and the cumulative demands these changes have placed on employees. Have those changes been positive, neutral, or negative?

Change is costly, and so is failing to change. Choose your changes carefully and factor employees’ reality into decisions. Wise investments can make the difference between a pool of employees who are engaged and effective — and a demoralized group struggling to get through each day.

The Center for Creative Leadership is a top-ranked, global provider of executive education with the mission to advance the understanding, practice and development of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide.