My mother used to say, “Cleaning the wound is often more painful than the cut itself.” These words have been ringing in my ears this month as the impact of the economic climate settles over many of the organizations and leaders I work with every day.
CNBC reports job cuts have increased 396% since the same time a year ago. The technology industry alone has announced 102,391 cuts so far in 2023 which is 5% more already than in the entire 12 months of 2022. While this news is very challenging for those individuals who have been laid off, this month’s article is for leaders who have “survived” workforce reductions.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
It is hard to be the one who stays and often after layoffs, there is heightened attrition because so much “damage” has been done to the workplace culture. Proactive consideration and effort is required at all levels of leadership to move through the event to a new chapter for your organization. For this reason, I have outlined some insights below that I hope will provide guidance during this challenging time. How to lead through layoffs.
It makes sense that most of our organizational and leadership resources during a layoff go toward those being let go, but the truth is, it is a difficult experience for those who stay behind as well. As a leader, it is important to determine how you feel before you start talking to your team. In many cases, leaders are being asked to do more work for less money when workforce reductions happen. Before rolling up your sleeves, take time to process what has happened and what it means to you on a personal level. Think about what part of how you are feeling is something you are willing to share with peers and direct reports. Take a step back and center yourself before addressing the change.
You don’t have to get through this alone. Many of your colleagues and direct reports may have similar feelings. Perhaps there are feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment, and insecurity. Perhaps there are feelings of relief, guilt, pressure to perform, and uncertainty about the future. When leaders use every opportunity to build empathy and show a genuine interest in hearing and clearing the emotional reactions that are filling the space, new energy will emerge and momentum will begin again. Often, for months leading up to workforce reduction announcements, productivity stalls as people wait and worry. Once the news is public, there can be a release of strong emotions for you and those you work with every day. This is healthy if it is handled with care and clearing the air is the only way to move forward authentically and in a way that supports individuals and the organization.
Studies show that 1/3 of employees experience survivor guilt and it can lead to a decline in job satisfaction, a lack of organizational commitment, and decreased job performance. Hero leadership feeds into an inability to pick up on these internal trends and therefore it creates bigger problems. Survivors need a leader is committed to empowering individuals through listening and facilitating the acquisition of the resources required to thrive in a rapidly shifting workplace. This may sound counterintuitive when there are people in your organization depending on you, but I always recommend you start by serving yourself as a leader. What grounds you personally? Professionally? What are the non-negotiable things you can honor that serve you as a human every day? Once you know the answer and are committed, you will have not just inspiration but momentum around serving others.
It is important to take time to ask, “How are you doing? What is on your mind?” Again, ask yourself first and then you will have more capacity to hold, process, and listen from a place of learning when you ask others. While much of a leaders day is about solving problems, during the aftermath of a layoff, sometimes it is best to accept that it isn’t the time for solving as much as for listening. There will be plenty of problems to solve in the coming months, but you will be much more equipped to get the best from yourself and others if you can listen first.
Sometimes leaders expect themselves and others to work harder out of gratitude for being spared. The emotional energy spent during the months leading up to a layoff, or perhaps due to the surprise of a workforce reduction, can create a long-term systemic issue if not handled authentically and transparently. Many leaders are not allowed to share messages about layoffs until the day they are announced which means they feel the survivor stress for longer, and at times more acutely, than those they lead.
Accepting, understanding, and communicating the why behind the reduction is critically important. This is especially true because even though many have been let go, new hires are most likely on their way through the doors. Leading yourself and others through accepting what has happened is paramount to your effectiveness to manage this change and integrate new team members successfully.
There is inevitably a loss of trust and community when team members are let go. It is important to have meaningful work for survivors that is aligned clearly with the bigger vision. When rebuilding your work community, it can be good for leaders to help others handle the change by focusing on what is not changing. It can be very grounding to revisit your shared values and core purpose in a way that recenters your community with a common language. Establish a vision of continuity to help quell the feelings of fear and uncertainty.
Help yourself and your team manage your workload by prioritizing so that everything doesn’t feel important. If everything is important, and people are expected to do more with less, long-term vision is replaced by short-term goals, and burnout and overwhelm set in. Productivity suffers when everything is a priority and teams may end up solving the wrong problems as a result. On the other hand, if as a leader, you can help your team and organization deprioritize certain initiatives, survivors will feel early success and sustained momentum on the other side of the workforce reduction. When this happens, growth is once again possible and exciting and the personal and organizational levels.
This is a call to action
I want to close with this … This is a call to action and an invitation to recognize some of the old patterns that many leaders have developed, will no longer work. I interview leaders every week who say, when they are under stress, they move to action. They believe they are doing what everyone needs when really it is an age-old coping mechanism that is reactionary. They feel people turn to them to act and lead the way out of whatever the stressful situation may be. I always counter with, “It works for you but how do you know what works for anyone else when you move straight to action?”
I am challenging the leaders reading this to hear that the only way out is through and there is no through without acknowledging, on an emotional level, what has happened and how it has affected you. Avoid canned statements such as, “We know this is a difficult time, but I want to reassure you that we are committed to supporting our remaining team members and ensuring that we continue to provide value to our customers.” Instead, take the time you need as a leader to think about how you truly feel and share it, for example, “I am frustrated with myself that I didn’t do more sooner. I am sad that (name team members) are gone. I am shocked that X account is gone, and the uncertainty is keeping me up at night. However, I am so grateful for each of you and the for the wisdom and depth of your capability but more because of who you are and that we are all still here together. I want to know how you are feeling and what I can do to support you.”
The Future Is Bright
Do not talk about the facts. Talk about the feelings. Remember, often leaders know about layoffs far in advance of their teams. You may have to have these conversations beyond when you feel they “should” be necessary. Remind yourself that others are coming through this having just learned of the reductions and the best thing you can do to make sure your people thrive, is to keep the conversation flowing.
Then, and only then, will others feel safe to share where they are coming from. Once the culture is set for these conversations to start happening, everything is possible again and from a heightened place of awareness and understanding. From this stronger foundation comes productivity and commitment unlike anything that you could have garnered from early and swift action out of the gate.
The cut is painful, and cleaning the wound can be even more daunting. If, as leaders, we can come together to connect, serve, listen, accept, rebuild, and grow, I know, with every fiber of my being, the future will be bright.