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
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Tips for Managing After
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
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
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
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.
Also visit these related sites:
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the employee but getting rid of the office space is the subject
of this article from T1 Rex's Business Telecom Explainer.
it, Your Boss is a Rat - A must-read expose for every employee,
especially those enamored by the best selling business guide,
"Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson, M.D.