Leading and Layoffs

Many leaders are forced to make difficult decisions that negatively affect people they care about. No one likes to lay people off or cut back resources, creating more work and stress. All of this comes at a great emotional cost.

It’s often said that true leaders emerge during times of crisis. Company leaders have a lot riding on how they respond. These days all eyes are on them. Everything they do and say is scrutinized. Workers are paying attention to every nuance trying to figure out “what’s really going on.”

Unfortunately, few company leaders are actually communicating. A recent national survey showed that 71 percent of those surveyed felt that their company’s leadership should be communicating more about current economic problems, and 54 percent have not heard from company leaders at all on the impact of the financial crisis on their company.

American workers are naturally feeling unsure and anxious during this economic downturn. We look to our workplace leaders for cues about how we should be responding. Silence is a response — but not an effective one.

What can leaders do?

  • Communicate frequently with the 3 C’s: clearly, credibly and candidly. During a crisis, communication is more important than ever. Ambiguity and uncertainty equate to stress. If you go silent, people will make up their own stories about what’s really going on with you and the company. Rumors often generate negativity and fan the flames of fear and anxiety.
  • Keep connected. Manage by walking around. You can’t afford during times like these not to know what’s really going on. Be diligent in seeking out information, even the bad news. It’s a mistake during a crisis to hide out in your office with the door closed. Nervous followers need comfort and reassurance from their leaders. Be visible and keep checking in with all levels of staff to see how people are doing.
  • Ask yourself, “What kind of emotional wake do I want to leave behind me today?” The emotions of a leader are highly contagious, so work hard to manage your own anxiety. No one will affect the overall workplace mood and morale more than a senior leader. Be mindful that any negative comments or tone will carry impact. If you show up like a cat on a hot tin roof, your anxiety will spread like a wildfire. Manage your own anxiety by developing a “self-soothing strategy” you can rely on. Find someone you can vent to safely, such as a trusted outside adviser or coach who also can offer an objective perspective.
  • Pay attention to task and people; be alert to their emotions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all is well or that your people will simply need to “deal with it.” Develop a proactive plan to recognize, identify and deal with current challenges and emotions in the workplace. Set time aside in team meetings to allow people to vent and talk about their anxieties and challenges. Listen and acknowledge what you hear them saying.
  • Be the anchor in the storm; display calm confidence and optimism. Model what you want from your team. This is your golden opportunity to truly lead by example and live your values.
  • Keep your team focused. Identify the single most important priority goal that everyone needs to commit to in order to weather the storm. Make sure everyone understands it and is clear what their part will be — their action item(s) in helping the team achieve it. Let them know there will be no tolerance for the “it’s not my job” syndrome for this goal! Create a measurable scoreboard for the goal, review it at every team meeting and recognize/celebrate critical milestones.
  • Engage hearts and minds (particularly your top performers’) to increase productivity. Facilitate a session to get all hands on deck. Bring the team or company together to brainstorm creative solutions for the game plan. Focus on core strengths and values, company vision and how to keep customer confidence high.
  • Stay the course. Reinforce the plan with follow-up, recognition, redefining expectations and adequate resource support for weathering the storm. Retaining your top talent during slow growth will be challenging — they get restless. Work to keep them engaged, well supported and rewarded. On that note, everyone’s extra effort should be noted and recognized.

Leaders can help layoff survivors

When forced to layoff staff, workplace team leaders are faced with many significant challenges, not the least of which is raising morale and worker engagement during unprecedented bad times. Workplace layoff survivors are commonly angry, feeling powerless, overwhelmed and highly stressed. Those left behind are being asked to do more with less and are distracted by the flood of bad news and job security fears. Perks are going by the wayside, and the pressure to produce has never been higher.

Understandably, employee engagement and morale are difficult to cultivate in this environment. Research confirms that following layoffs, survivors report higher levels of distrust and lower levels of motivation and engagement. The result? Absenteeism goes up and productivity goes down. Few businesses can afford this now.

How do you keep survivors motivated and engaged?

  • Console your team and foster healing. Allow them time and support to talk about their emotions and frustrations. When they do, cast aside any judgments you may have and listen simply to “understand” them. Demonstrate empathy for those in pain during these difficult times. Leaders who try to push past this without allowing time and healing with their people are making a mistake.
  • Work to rebuild trust. Teams simply can’t operate optimally without trust. Trust is enhanced when leaders demonstrate concern and act with integrity. Trust is also fostered by being transparent and talking straight about reality. Be courageous in front of your team by asking for help, or admit, “I was wrong,” if applicable. There is expert help available to help you and your team get through this difficult time.
  • Reassign roles and responsibilities to remaining workers carefully. In my coaching experience, most leaders don’t pay enough attention upfront to clarifying expectations and role changes. Focus on quantifying and clarifying things such as how much time should be required and what “quality” and “success” look like. There may be noncritical tasks or assignments that will need to be let go. Helping your team prioritize the new workload is important. Each team member should understand how the work he or she does contributes to company or team objectives.
  • Be realistic and support with resources. Some employees will require additional training, coaching and direction to be successful.
  • Provide leadership. Check in with team members to see if they need more support or clarification about who is doing what, when. Make believers of your team that “we’re all in this together.” Communicate that success or failure will be determined by how the team responds under pressure. Reinforce that all hands on deck are required.
  • Acknowledge small wins. Celebrate any success to keep morale up. One Gallup survey reported that 60 percent of American workers report getting no praise or recognition in their workplaces. This isn’t OK. Recognition doesn’t have to be huge bonuses. Small rewards can work — relief from repetitive tasks, pizza parties, an extra day off, etc. The idea here is to foster a team or workplace culture of appreciation, not fear. Leaders who demonstrate they care and appreciate their workers’ efforts will be rewarded with performance.
  • Facilitate teamwork and collaboration. It’s up to the leader to provide an environment that supports and encourages input from everyone for healthy dialogue and debate. Done well, this process will surface tough problems and better solutions.

Again, there is help out there for this. Expert facilitators can help managers and teams with practical problem-solving techniques and approaches that foster collaboration and creativity.

  • Consider doing it differently. It may be useful for your team to re-examine how work is being done and whether it should be done in this environment. This is a good time to look at alternative ways of work system design and prioritization.
  • Use humor, even to poke fun at what’s lousy. One leader recently joked to his senior management team, “The good news is that our building is up to the latest ADA standards and has complete wheelchair access. I figure it will be handy when we’re still working here in our 90s.”

Perspective is in the mind of the beholder and attitude is often the key. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself, and those alongside you, that thirst is quenched from the half of the cup that is full. Be thankful for simple blessings, including jobs and wheelchair ramps.

Delivering Bad News

BAD NEWS IS everywhere — in the news and the office. Part of a leader’s role and responsibility is to deliver bad news. While announcing layoffs, closings, salary reductions, loss of expected promotions, major clients or business can be extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable, employees (and often clients) need to be informed. The delivery of bad news needs to be handled professionally, carefully and consciously.

As a professional coach, I can’t overstress that avoiding delivering bad news is not an effective strategy. There is a high cost to silence. Rumor mills take over, which can lead to office paralysis, bad mojo and morale spiraling out of control. It’s not OK for employees to be recipients of their bad news through the grapevine or left speculating about the worst.

Here are my coach’s tips to more effectively deliver bad news:

  • Be prepared. Take the time to reflect, identify and prioritize your key talking points. What do you need to say? It is vital to convey your message clearly and concisely. Keep your message short, precise and simple; don’t overwhelm people with details in your initial delivery. This is not a time to be misunderstood. Prepare so you can be ready for questions you anticipate will be asked.
  • Deliver your message in person. Common courtesy dictates that people should be treated with respect. Yet it astonishes me how many companies deliver bad news via broadcast e-mail! No one wants to get bad news in broadcast. It’s impersonal, makes people feel devalued as human beings and is simply poor form.
  • Don’t make excuses, beat around the bush or bring up something irrelevant. Convey your message in a straightforward and respectful way. Give people credit for their contributions and genuine effort.
  • Don’t ignore emotions — yours or theirs. These situations are emotionally charged. Controlling your emotional reactivity during the delivery of the message is important. Though you can’t control how they react, you can control your emotional behavior. Be mindful of being calm and be prepared to use self-soothing strategies. Understand that feelings are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. In the end, feelings just are what they are. Acknowledge their feelings, your observations and respond appropriately. Most people don’t expect you to change your position. What they do expect is to be heard, seen and validated.
  • Practice your delivery with someone (a trusted adviser or coach). You want to identify any nonverbal messages you may inadvertently be sending that might be misinterpreted. Nervous habits like hand-wringing (indicating anxiety) or putting your hands on your hips (which makes others think you are lecturing them) are things to look out for. You want to use a steady tone and make eye contact. If you don’t make eye contact, people think you are hiding something. Practice your responses to the expected (and unexpected) questions and reactions.
  • Give people time to hear, digest and process the news. Suggest they leave early if they need to collect themselves. Individuals react to bad news in a wide variety of ways. Demonstrate your care, concern and sincere empathy for whatever they may be experiencing. Have a plan for what you or the company can do to help them through the difficult transition period.

Leadership has never been more important. How we manage the most difficult of situations can make all the difference.