Layoffs really suck – most obviously for those whose livelihoods are affected. People put their trust in their employers and make personal sacrifices only to be told, “We’ll take it from here.” The reduction in force (RIF) is one of the great injustices in today’s corporate world – often unavoidable, yet completely unfair.

Layoffs also suck for companies and their remaining employees. They’re difficult and emotional times, as they often cause people to lose confidence in their company and their own futures. Research shows that layoffs cause sharp declines in engagement and productivity – right at the very moment you need your people to perform their best.

Rarely do organizations simply downsize and assume everything will just work out. Instead, RIFs will often trigger a number of organizational changes: priority shifts, department mergers, consolidations, shifting responsibilities, and new ways of working – not to mention the need to deliver on the strategies put in motion before the layoffs were even announced. Effective activation of these changes and strategies requires that everyone leans in and plays their part. That’s an extremely difficult thing when fear, resistance, and pessimism are spiking.

So, how do you get your people back on the train instead of just standing in the station? How do you ensure that your strategies will be fully supported instead of resisted?

Begin with your leadership team. Now more than ever, your leaders will be under the microscope. People are going to watch the folks at the top and talk to each other about what they observe, whether that’s confidence, skepticism, confusion, remorse, or self-preservation. These observations will be exacerbated especially if language and behaviors vary from leader to leader.

When employees see that the leadership team is aligned and working together toward a common goal, they’ll be more likely to feel confident and motivated in their own work, so make sure your leaders have a shared understanding of both the current situation and the desired future state. Don’t just give talking points. Let your leaders create the narrative and establish a behavioral contract together, because you can’t help but own something if you contributed to its creation. Having unified, clear, and consistent language, actions, and behaviors at the top is vital to showing your people the path forward.

Now is also a good time to reground everyone – from executives to the front line – in your company’s mission, vision, and values (MVV). Be transparent about the decision to downsize and show people that you have no intention of wavering from your principles. If your guiding purpose needs adjustment, be transparent about that too, and ask for everyone’s help in refining the MVV.

It’s okay to acknowledge what your people are going through. Depression, anger, guilt, fear, loss of confidence, and desire to leave are typical feelings that will lead to disengagement and lower productivity – a danger that will ultimately be seen and felt by your customers. To mitigate this, have an open dialogue about Why, What, and How.

  • Why is this happening? What are the external forces and internal challenges that led us here?
  • What is our strategic response to the situation? What does our successful future look like?
  • How will we work together to achieve our goals?

The way you deliver this information is just as important as the information itself and can backfire if not done right. Companies often rely on simply communicating information when they should be engaging their people in a dialogue. (And no, a town hall Q&A session is not a dialogue.) You need to give your people the tools and freedom to have open, honest conversations – something most organizations never make the effort to do. If you’re not fostering an environment that lets people air it out constructively, you can bet that they’ll find a more counterproductive way to do it themselves. When done correctly, the output will help your people connect the dots for themselves, and you’ll see a significant mindset shift. Resistance will be replaced by confidence. Indifference will be replaced by understanding. Fear will be replaced by a sense of purpose and belonging.

There’s no downplaying that layoffs are terrible, traumatic, and often unavoidable. However, through empathy, transparency, alignment, and dialogue, companies do have the power to mitigate the impact on their people and to maintain their peoples’ motivation to engage and support organizational goals.

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January 20, 2023

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Managing Change


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