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Managing after Downsizing
A Manager's Guide to Coping With Layoffs

By: John Shepler

Your organization has just experienced one of the most unsettling events in modern corporate life and now YOU are expected to make things work under the new rules. But what are the new rules? How will you re-engage the traumatized workforce and get the business back on track?

As bad as it seems...

You are not the first to got through this and you won't be the last. Once viewed as extreme measures, downsizing, delayering, restructuring, and other dramatic changes in the workplace are now "normal" business practice. Change management has become an important leadership skill for all managers.

People and organizations DO survive and adjust to the new reality. Not only does life go on, but many people actually prosper and grow as a result of having change thrust upon them. It is often true that "when one door closes another is opened."

There is help available from those who have gone through this experience before you. The insights and suggestions that I offer you on this site come directly from my own experiences in numerous workforce reductions and organizational upheavals. There are websites, books, courses and consultants who can all help you get through and lead others through the ensuing chaos that results from downsizing.

What you are dealing with...

Downsizing is a very personal and emotional experience for people caught up in the events. Some managers believe that those who are not dismissed 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 people are expected to take on new roles, something quite different occurs. People go into shock.

Strange as it seems at first, those who survive the downsizing process may suffer as much as those who don't!

The survivors experience an emotional shock that prevents them from suddenly changing direction. They freeze like a "deer in the headlights." The familiar pattern is 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 leaving or their positions eliminated. It feels very much like a death in the family and needs the compassion and time for mourning that we expect whenever a loved one is lost.

A good manager will have the compassion for the human need to cope with the shock and fear that people feel, combined with a sense of optimism, direction and mission that will help them through the often painful transition from what was to what is to be. There are actually 3 steps that will need to be accomplished before the new organization is back on its feet.

Aftershock: Helping People through Corporate Change by Harry Woodward and Steve Buchholz. An excellent resource that goes into more depth on the change model of endings, transitions and beginnings This book also goes into depth on the reactions you can expect to change, which include disengagement, disidentification, disorientation and disenchantment. Making sense of what appears to be senseless behavior is essential to identifying what people need and how best to get them back "on board." Consider getting enough copies for your everyone on your staff.Endings - People need to understand and come to accept that the changes are real and not reversible. The old organization, the old ways are gone and won't be restored. Something has ended...forever. It is reasonable and proper to mourn for the loss, but eventually it is necessary to move on.

Transitions - There is an in-between time when you are letting go of the old and getting familiar with the new. It is a time of uncertainty and often confusion, discomfort and high stress. People may even feel incompetent until they master new tools, new skills and new roles. This is the wilderness through which managers have such a critical role of leadership if the new organization is to take hold and prosper.

New Beginnings - As people come to accept and master their new roles, the structure of the organization begins to gel and once again a routine and sense of "normalcy" begin to become apparent. The old ways fade into memory and the new ways become the expectation. People feel competent and confident again. Productivity increases as people focus on the job at hand rather than dwelling on personal anxieties.

Tips for Managing After Downsizing...

Recognize that downsizing or any dramatic change will be met with an emotional response that will be as intense as the situation is threatening. In many cases people will fee victimized and will need to mourn their loses before they can move on. Try to buy them time and professional counseling if you can.

In any given group, expect that 70 to 80% will be apathetic or take a "wait and see" attitude. They need to be led. Another 10 to 15% will be openly hostile or will subtly sabotage the changes and try to return to the way things were before. The remaining 10 to 15% are your leaders. They will proactively try to help you make things work. Put them in charge of the others.

Try to exude optimism and "can do" regarding changes that need to be made. Promote optimism and positive thinking and speaking as much as possible. Don't deny the trauma and pain that is occurring, but find the bright spots and emphasize those rather than dwelling on the loses, the difficulty of making the transitions or all the work that is piled up and needs to be done. Minimize criticism and fault finding. Celebrate every success, no matter how minor.

Develop a vision of the future that draws people toward doing the right things. Specifics can be developed as you go along, but it is essential that people have a clear and understandable picture of the goal in their minds. It is also important that they see something in it for themselves so they will begin to get on board and lend their voluntary support.

Build teamwork. Create a sense that "we are all in this together and need each other to make it." Acknowledge that everyone's contribution is essential and their input is valued. Encourage group discussions where people can freely express their feelings and offer suggestions. Bring treats. Sometimes even a bag of cookies can offer some comfort and break the ice. Get people kidding and laughing, even if some of the humor is "gallows humor."

If you can see what is coming with some time to prepare, then start creative problem solving as soon as possible. Get training for managers and other leaders in the human aspects of change. In good times, most managers are 80% technically oriented and 20% people oriented. During times of crisis, those numbers should reverse until routine is established again. Most technical managers will need human resources training and support. Read books and take courses on managing change...before you have to implement.

Way over communicate everything. When things seem to be coming apart, the normal communication links break down just as suspicion and mistrust begin to predominate. 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 news is so bad that no one wants to tell them. Bore them to tears with as much detail as often as possible. Trust will build.

Be honest about the realities and future expectations. Don't say "the layoffs are over" if there is any uncertainty that the business situation has stabilized. It is not uncommon for a series of changes to occur during the process of readjustment. 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.

Empathetic leadership is far more effective than being a threatening autocratic boss. Certainly some things need to be pushed, but during the traumatic transition period, don't focus too much on efficiency, mistakes or poor attitudes. Instead spend your efforts in coaching and encouraging people to be successful in bridging the gap between the old and new. Reward each success and let the ones who adjust more quickly be examples for the struggling members of the group.

Remember that personal strength and strong supportive relationships are often forged in the fires of adversity. When the crisis has passed, many people will be surprised by some of the skills they exhibited that they would otherwise never have realized. They may well be on the road to new careers, happier lives and better jobs.

Remember: in today's business environment...change is the norm, not the exception.

Books of Interest:

Aftershock: Helping People through Corporate Change by Harry Woodward and Steve Buchholz. An excellent resource that goes into more depth on the change model of endings, transitions and beginnings This book also goes into depth on the reactions you can expect to change, which include disengagement, disidentification, disorientation and disenchantment. Making sense of what appears to be senseless behavior is essential to identifying what people need and how best to get them back "on board." Consider getting enough copies for your everyone on your staff.

All Hat and No Cattle, Tales of a Corporate Outlaw by Chris Turner and Allen Webber. An irreverent and inspirational guide to overcoming corporate complacency, injecting spirit and energy, and creating real change and personal fulfillment in organizations of all shapes and sizes.

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Sense and Nonsense about Culture Change by Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis.

The Way of the Ronin, Riding the Waves of Change at Work by Beverly A. Potter and Matt Gouig. The Way Of The Ronin shows how to be self-mastering and excellent, like a warrior, and how to ride the waves of change.

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Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com

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First Published: January, 1999 as part of A Positive Light

 

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