Survivors need emotional support, extensive communication from leadership, clear direction and job descriptions, and career development assistance in the transition following downsizing. Using even a few of these key strategies will help you more successfully lead your team forward.
We are all facing unprecedented disruptions due to the global pandemic that has rocked our personal and professional lives in profound and traumatic ways. In response to significant losses of work and revenue, many organizations in the private, non-profit and public sectors have been forced to implement layoffs, in some cases up to 75% of their employees, just to barely stay afloat during this crisis. It is quite likely that your organization has not been spared from this traumatic event and has just experienced one of the most unsettling events in modern organizational life – a significant reduction in force.
As we all prepare to slowly return to work, if you are in leadership, YOU are now expected to re-engage the remaining workforce and get the business back on track. A daunting task, to say the least! During the transition “back” to work, it is critical that team leaders consider the critical needs of those employees who have “survived” the layoff process, i.e., those that are still employed with you. We need to remember that organizational downsizing is a very personal and emotional experience for people caught up in the events.
Some managers may believe that those who did not get laid off will feel relieved, even grateful that they survived to keep their jobs. This might be true in some cases, where the cuts are few and widely felt to be justified. However, in the large-scale cutbacks that result in a decimated organization where long-term working relationships are severed and team members are expected to take on new roles, something quite different occurs. When experiencing the effects of such a dramatic organizational change, your team members will have a multitude of feelings, including shock, insecurity, fatigue, and grief. Some of these common responses to change may be visible from some of your team members, and some others may not.
A good leader will have the compassion for the human need to cope with shock and fear that comes with disruptive change, combined with a sense of optimism, direction and mission that will help team members through the often painful transition from what was to what is to be. The following ten strategies can help leaders guide their teams forward.
1. Be visible: Your team will definitely want to talk to you, ask you questions and watch how you handle the change. While you may be pressed with a multitude of heavy responsibilities, it is imperative that you check in regularly with your team members, that you model a “can-do” attitude, and that you be available to listen to their sentiments and demonstrate concern and interest in their welfare. They really need to see you.
2. Understand and respect how people experience and respond to change, especially during and following layoffs. Those who remain on the job are experiencing the effects of change and have a variety of feelings, including anger, guilt, loss, fear and exhaustion. Some survivors experience an emotional shock that may prevent them from suddenly changing direction or from doing much at all. The familiar pattern your team members have become accustomed to has been broken and the momentum that comes from routine and repetition will take time to recover. Not knowing what to do, people will wait and see what happens. They are waiting for leadership, someone to tell them what to do next.
Even more than the loss of familiarity and momentum is the sense of personal loss that many people feel at seeing their friends and colleagues leaving or their positions eliminated. It feels very much like a death in the family, and they need the compassion that we expect whenever a loved one is lost. It will be critical for leaders to acknowledge and respond to these feelings and provide guidance and direction (see #4 and #5 below) in order to help them move forward in as positive, efficient and productive way as possible.
3. Over-communicate: Some news is always better than no news, even if it is the same old news. If people don’t hear anything, they fear the worst or fill the vacuum with their own fears, creating misinformation and fueling the “rumor mill.” The best way to correct negative beliefs that commonly result downsizing and ongoing future uncertainty, is to provide employees with frequent, truthful, and direct communication. Ensure that employee questions are being answered. Be transparent: employees need to believe that decisions that are made are rational, logical and equitable. Encourage group discussions where everyone can express their input and suggestions. Consider weekly meetings.
4. Reemphasize mission, values and goals: Develop a vision of the future that draws people toward doing the right things. Spend time with individuals and small groups of people talking about the culture and work environment you want to create moving forward. Define what you need to do as a group to move in that direction, and help your team members see their connection to the goal and what’s in it for them. Make sure everyone understands the vision and feels they are a valuable asset in the new reorganization.
5. Clarify roles: After layoffs, remaining employees are uneasy because they may be unsure what they're supposed to be doing, to whom they should be accountable, or if they're doing a good job. Use your organization’s performance management system and sit down with each employee to help clarify their new role, any changed assignments, expectations and priorities. Most employees find great comfort in knowing exactly what they're working toward and exactly what's expected of them.
6. Focus on employee development and building self-esteem: Some team members may be worried that they don’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to do their new or expanded jobs. Having previously been accustomed to feeling competent and capable, they are now concerned they won’t perform as well or be perceived as high-performers. Discuss this “learning moment” openly with them and identify additional training resources and support they feel they need and provide it if possible. Help each individual feel as if the skills they have or are obtaining will make them highly marketable. The goal is to help them feel confident that they have the capacity to contribute, to grow and develop and to master the changed work environment.
7. Reengineer your processes and make it clear what remaining work is priority. Remember that you can’t do the same volume and quality of work with fewer people. Look for ways to streamline current work and ask for process improvement ideas from those who know the work best: your team members. Have them help you identify work processes that add the least value to the customers, and eliminate those so that you can focus on the most value-added work. Studies indicate that, following layoffs, remaining team members were reassured when they were allowed to participate in the restructuring or reengineering process. In addition, they were more committed to the organization’s moving forward to new success.
8. Demonstrate that you value those who remain: talk to each of your team members individually and reassure them of their value to you and the organization, highlighting what you feel they contribute to your effective, continuously improving work environment. Minimize criticism and fault finding as much as possible right now. Celebrate every success, no matter how minor. Build teamwork by acknowledging that everyone’s contribution is essential and that their input is valued.
9. Rebuild trust and be sensitive to on-going emotions: Remember that, following a reduction in force, trust has been damaged and your team is experiencing a loss. Allow them the time and space to deal with anger, guilt, loss and denial. Cut them some slack if they’re not at their “best” for a little while. Pay attention to signs of burnout and stress, remind people to take breaks, encourage them to let you know if they are feeling overwhelmed. Talk about how these feelings and experiences are normal and expected. Remind them of whatever EAP services or other supports are available to them and their families. Get some support for yourself from an experienced and qualified coaching professional.
10. Be honest about realities and future expectations: Don’t say “the layoffs are over” if there is any uncertainty about the future. If people begin to relax their guard only to get more shocking news, they will be much slower to trust any statements in the future. Again, honest, transparent communication will build trust and foster an environment of open dialogue.
Survivors need emotional support, extensive communication from leadership, clear direction and job descriptions, and career development assistance in the transition following downsizing. Using even a few of these strategies will help you more successfully lead your team forward.