This is the first in a series of posts on managing change overload. This initial post focuses on change demand.
When we say change is demanding, we may mean one or more of several things.
Change activities are often additive to daily work. Most members of an organization have specific responsibilities and duties that are important to the smooth operation of the business–producing products, talking to customers, keeping financial records, etc. When we ask people to change something about what they are doing, they often need to participate in planning sessions, attend training, meet with leaders, respond to communications, and experiment with new ways of doing things. In many cases, there is a clear but typically unstated expectation that this will be done without impact to daily productivity.
Change consumes mental energy. When we are doing familiar work, our brains operate in “automatic” mode much of the time. Automatic processing of information is described as “unintentional, involuntary, effortless (not consumptive of limited processing capacity), and occurring outside awareness” by cognitive scientists such as John Bargh. In contrast, when we are engaging in unfamiliar activities, our brains need to apply “controlled” processing which is characterized as “under the flexible, intentional control of the individual, that he or she is consciously aware of, and that is effortful and constrained by the amount of attentional resources available at the moment” (the source for the quotes is here). This means that change places greater demands on our limited supply of attentional resources than does stability.
Change consumes physical energy. Some types of changes, such as having a baby, experiencing a physical illness, or moving to a new home, clearly involve physical demands. But even changes that do not have a specifically physical component to them can be taxing. Any change involving a significant amount of stress, grief, or confusion can lead to loss of sleep, disruption of eating and exercise habits, headaches, and other physical symptoms. These can make even simple tasks seem highly effortful.
Change consumes emotional energy. Author Mira Kirshenbaum describes emotional energy as “aliveness of the mind, happiness of the heart, and a spirit filled with hope.” Others use words such as passion, fun, and enthusiasm to describe emotional energy. Some experts believe that as much as 70% of our energy is emotional. Whether changes are desirable or undesirable, one thing they have in common is sense of unpredictability and/or loss of control. These, in turn, can lead to outcomes such as anxiety, worry, and indecision. In addition, many changes–even generally positive ones–involve a sense of loss, which can lead to additional outcomes such as regret, sadness, and grief. All of these outcomes place a strain on emotional well-being.
Each of these resources–the number of hours in the day available to do work, cognitive capacity, and physical and emotional energy, is finite. Each change places its own set of demands on the supply of resources. The cumulative demand can create a situation of overload, in which there are not enough resources of one sort or another to accommodate all the demands. In my next entry, I’ll discuss the sources of change demand.