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Ketchum Change has called on business leaders to adopt a ‘liquid’ culture and operating model after publishing the findings of their multi-national survey

The grinding, continuous volume of change may be wearing out employees, but often senior leaders don’t see it, according to a seven-country survey of senior executives at large corporations, commissioned by Ketchum Change.

“Dynamic business environments and a culture of continuous change is the new normal for large organizations, and it’s only going to accelerate,” said Tyler Durham, partner and president of Ketchum Change, the change management and employee engagement unit of global communications firm Ketchum. “Employees don’t have time to adapt to one change before the next one is upon them. The challenge for leaders is to drive change in ways that energize and empower people and ensure their organizations are prepared both culturally and operationally to embrace change as opportunity.”

According to the Liquid Change Survey, some senior leaders are unaware of the effects of change fatigue while their employees struggle to keep up. Among partners and C-suite executives, only 28 percent think change fatigue is highly prevalent in their companies, compared to 41 percent at the director level, and 47 percent at the SVP and VP levels.

“The survey tells us many top-tier leaders don’t recognize the exhausting effect that continuous change and volatility has on employees and how that exhaustion can lower employees’ productivity, reduce their engagement and damage retention rates,” said Durham. “And if leaders aren’t aware of it, they will be unprepared for its damaging effects and the resulting costs on their business.”

The survey results point to a cure for change fatigue. They show a strong correlation between companies that have embraced a change culture and those that have a bright outlook on the future. Those companies have committed to four behaviors that Ketchum Change identifies as essential to success in changing environments:

  • Transparent: Communicating with clarity and authenticity across borders, and employing the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor’s proven formula of open communication, decisive action and personal presence;
  • Pioneering: Promoting curiosity and experimentation, and supporting risk-taking to break through and innovate;
  • Dialed-In: Creating strong connections with internal and external stakeholders, embracing fearless listening and fostering co-creation;
  • Agile: Driving forward through passion and resiliency to seize and act on opportunities in real time.

The survey indicates that to succeed in an environment of continuous change, a different, more collaborative approach must replace the old top-down, command-and-control model. Outlining a clear strategy and goals (43 percent) and engaging with leaders across the organization to co-create the new environment (41 percent) were cited as the most effective ways to get leaders to believe in and actively lead through change.

Conversely, the most common impediment to successfully navigating through change was gaining input from across the business. Looking at the results of the study overall, it becomes clear that companies that manage change effectively have a more positive outlook on their future and good communication across the organization is key.

This finding echoes another recent global piece of Ketchum leadership research – the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor. The 2015 iteration of the study surveyed people in 12 countries and found that with little faith in official leaders, people want to see leadership qualities demonstrated at every level in an organization, not just in the C-suite.

“Business leaders and employees have never had to deal with change at the unrelenting pace we see today,” said Durham. “Leadership behaviors, corporate cultures and organizations’ operating systems are going to have to adapt and become more liquid to address the new reality and seize competitive advantage or they will break under the strain.”

Other Liquid Change survey findings include:

  • Pioneering behaviors, such as being an innovation leader relative to peer companies and seizing upon new ideas, are key drivers of business outlook and ability to thrive through change
  • Conversely, organizations that experienced highly prevalent levels of change fatigue were significantly more likely to cite the following as challenging:
    • Economic climate (72 percent vs. 31 percent at companies that feel change fatigue is less prevalent)
    • Political climate (72 percent vs. 22 percent)
    • Risk adversity (72 percent vs. 23 percent)
    • Gaining input from across the business (69 percent vs. 26 percent)
  • People working in general management were less likely to see change fatigue as highly prevalent at their organization than those in human resources, organizational development or communications

Ketchum Global Research & Analytics surveyed 513 people in total across the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Those surveyed were at the director level or higher in organizational development, human resources, communications or general management who make most or some budgetary decisions. These individuals are employed full or part time at companies with more than 10,000 employees or that generated $500 million or more in revenue in their most recent financial year.