By Jan Dwyer Bang, MBA, CSP
We’ve seen it, read about it, or even experienced it. Downsizing, lay-offs, and workplace changes. Clearly, it’s a horrible thing to be laid off, and few people would willingly volunteer. But, there is often a silver lining for these people. They have a wealth of resources to tap into for help getting a new job and also have the chance to re-examine their careers and choose a different path if they desire. There are many success stories, where people land on their feet, often with even better jobs and careers than before.
But what about the people who are still employed – the survivors? And more specifically, what about the survivors’ managers? What tools and resources are available for them? They have the behemoth task of leading and empowering the organization through the stages of letting go and moving on toward the future.
The Survivor Syndrome
Before we focus on the managers, let’s look at organizational survivors in general. Along with increased workload, many survivors struggle with a myriad of feelings as they deal with saying goodbye to their co-workers, who most likely have become part of their network of friends. As their colleagues pack their offices, turn in their security cards and walk out the door, survivors have strong feelings of sadness and grief.
Along with grief, however, some of the survivors may experience something called “survivor sickness,” that includes strong feelings of guilt. In “Healing the Wounds,” David M. Noer summarizes the many feelings workplace survivors experience and categorizes these emotions into the following clusters:
- Fear, insecurity, and uncertainty
- Frustration, resentment, and anger
- Sadness, depression and guilt
- Unfairness, betrayal, and distrust
“The key variable is the survivor’s sense of personal violation. The greater their perception of violation, the greater the susceptibility to survivor sickness. The perception of violation appears directly related to the degree of trust employees have had that the organization will take care of them.”
Because these feelings are so pervasive, it’s important that survivors be allowed to discuss their feelings after a downsizing. Otherwise, organizations will be filled with people who are in denial and who release these emotions in unproductive ways. Sometimes the organization breeds the mistaken notion that sharing feelings is unacceptable; thus people resort to more “acceptable” venting. Sarcasm, joking, or blaming or inevitable in this kind of atmosphere.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked through four downsizings and can attest to the healing that results from employees sharing feelings in an atmosphere of openness and trust. When the training business shut down at Weyerhaeuser, one of the many ways the director deal with the change was to allow team members to talk about their feelings. Sometimes these conversations weren’t in staff meetings but occurred naturally in hallways or in cubicles. It was extremely helpful for each of us to feel free in expressing ourselves in a safe, non-threatening manner and have our feelings validated.
Besides understanding the myriad emotions and feelings survivors are experiencing and also taking care of their own emotions, there are a number of other useful tips for managers to consider as they walk through an organizational downsizing.
Your employees need information during this tremendous change. And even though you may feel you’ve repeated the same information over and over, do it again. Since many employees may still be numbed by the layoff announcement and are in denial that it’s really going to happen, frequent, ongoing communication is imperative, say Alice Riley, human resources manager for a brewery that recently closed one of its plants. Managers need to avail themselves of the many communication vehicles that are out there, including face-to-face conversations, staff meetings, employee forums, email, company newsletters, and web sites. Riley suggests that top and middle management need to be sure to have a presence in the organization. They need to get out of their offices and walk around, talk to employees, go to their work areas, and ask how they are doing. Managers need to communicate to both sets of employees – those that are being laid off, as well as the layoff survivors.
Often, it’s not what we say but how we say it that especially important to employees, especially when they first hear the news of a downsizing. Noer’s philosophy is that managers need to “lead from the heart, follow with the head.” In his book, he shares two examples of messages a senior leader could impart to staff. One example is purely factual and statistical, and the other message is filled with authenticity and empathy for what the employees are going through. We can guess which message is more effective. Though the second example requires the senior leader to take more of a risk, the investment can reap exponential rewards.
Rumors, gossiping, and side conversations about what is going on can lead to increased anxiety and stress on the part of your workforce. Take the time to communicate to employees in a heartfelt, sincere manner.
In his book, “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” William Bridges defines three guideposts on the path to successful transitions: endings, the neutral zone, and new beginnings. Any change brings an ending, and one of the most beneficial things that managers can do for their employees is to provide opportunities for their team members to say goodbye. The training business at Weyerhaeuser spent a day in the park where we gathered around a campfire and threw those things we were letting go of into the fire. I have also heard of departments having “funerals” of old systems as a tangible way of “letting go.”
Riley says that when the brewery closed one of its plants, the company provided a number of opportunities for their employees that aligned with all three stages in the change process. The company organized onsite meeting (groups and one-on one) with its employee assistance service to provide change counseling. In addition, it held on-site employment security meetings and gave employees a chance to meet with state career counselors, as well as to talk with others in group unemployment relocation meetings. Lastly, the company provided career outplacement services.
Before managers can help their employees go through the grieving process, they need to help themselves. Some managers seek mentors or coaches who provide that listening ear and supportive counsel as they deal with their own emotions.
Help Create the Future
One of the exciting things about going through the grieving process and wrestling through the confusing in-between state of the neutral zone it that the next stage brings with it a sense of freedom. The laid off workers begin to realize there is life outside the organization. And the survivors have renewed optimism and hope for the future. To keep the survivors optimistic, it’s important to create an environment of self-empowerment that still focuses on a company wide team approach.
To provide this type of environment, offer training and resources for employees to take more control of their careers and find their passions. Managers need to empower their employees to make decisions and have more autonomy in their jobs, and ultimately, in their lives. Are employees in the right jobs, commensurate with their own gifts and talents? Indeed, many people have not found their “passion,” and are working in jobs that are ill suited for their talents, temperaments, and skill sets.
Additionally, managers should focus on being coaches. The survivors have a shared experience; coach them toward using this background to build a united team. Also, promote a healthy work/life balance so employees don’t feel overly dependent on their organization to fulfill needs companies were never meant to fill.
By communicating empathetically, supporting employees in their grieving and helping them create their future, managers can help build the kind of high-performance employees who not only are survivors but thrivers. These individuals model the kind of creative transformation that inevitably occurs when change is used as a stepping stone to personal and professional growth. Managers have both the privilege and responsibility to create environments where all employees survive in a corporate downsizing.
For More Information:
“Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” by William Bridges, Perseus Publishing, 2nd Edition, ISBN: 0738208248
“Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsizing Organizations,” by David M. Noer, Jossey Bass, ISBN: 1555427081
This article was originally posted at janeldwyerbang.com.
Jan Dwyer Bang, MBA, CSP is a faculty member of LEADERSHIP USA.