As an Industrial Psychologist, a portion of my role is helping organizations go through the processes of restructuring, reorganizing, downsizing, rightsizing, or “laying people off”. Not only did I often design the process, but I walked leadership through decision-making, sat in the rooms while employees received the news, and was often the last person the employee saw, handing over their badge as they walked through the doors for the last time.
Outside of the actual layoffs themselves, I helped the organization and leadership prepare for what was to come and was left putting the pieces back together long after it was over. I have administered hundreds of layoffs, and I have been on both sides of the table. When leadership doesn’t recognize the ongoing implications to their teams, it can have a profound and negative impact on the future of the organization.
What the world is experiencing right now is a worldwide downsizing or mass layoff. Although everyone will experience it differently, there are certainly patterns that are similar between the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and an organizational downsizing. If we don’t acknowledge and prepare for these feelings and emotions, it will be difficult to continue to move forward and properly address them in the future.
I will first outline 10 experiences that I anticipate the people across the world will experience and likely already are experiencing during this pandemic. As to not invite thoughts you may not currently have, I will speak in terms of an organizational layoff and let you draw your own parallels to the current state of affairs. I have personally experienced everyone of these during layoffs and in the current crisis as well. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. I will wrap up 10 tips on how you can help manage your team or family, through this crisis.
1. Survivor’s Guilt
- Survivors of a layoff experience intense guilt. Why was I left behind? He did everything right; why was he laid off? She has a family to provide for. It should have been me instead. Often times, the full range of impact isn’t obvious. For months, employees may still be learning of those who were let go. With each new discovery, the reality hits afresh; old feelings come back. It takes time to stop feeling shots of pain at the discovery that another life was altered.
- Many survivors engage in bartering. I can find another job, let me go instead. Let me go so others will have a chance to stay. I will gladly give up part of my income if it means more
2. Tank in Productivity & Engagement
During times of uncertainty, it is difficult to make plans for the future. Often, rumors of a restructure begin long before the actual process. There is a ramping up period followed by a slow and steady decline from the peak. From the very start of the rumors, uncertainty begins to fill the air. Engagement drops, leading to an equally dramatic drop in productivity. Why put effort into a project that may get cut? Why build relationships that may be broken? How can we make plans when we don’t know what tomorrow holds or what the future will look like? Instead of working, we begin to make plans for the worst. We begin moving files from our work computer or cleaning up our resume. We start talking to each other about the rumors and try to figure out what is going on.
It’s all anyone talks about. We read everything we can about the possibilities, try to guess what will happen, criticize leadership for not taking certain actions sooner. We experience anger, fear, doubt, and optimism all in the same day, sometimes within the same conversation. It consumes our every thought. It is incredibly difficult to focus on anything else, especially when we aren’t even sure if it will matter in the end.
3. Random Fear & Anger
Feelings of fear are incredibly common across downsizing initiatives. Fear as friends are called in one-by-one. Anger when they are let go or treated poorly. Anger because you couldn’t do anything about it. Wondering who is next. We begin trying to predict, which is often impossible. Every moment brings a new discovery. At any moment, it could be you or someone you know, even someone you love. It feels like Russian roulette, and you have no control whatsoever. This fear can pop up when you least expect it. One minute you’re enjoying a cup of coffee, chatting with a friend, and the next minute you are breathing into a paper bag, crying over the idea of never drinking coffee out of that cup again. Your mind races through every possibility and worst-case scenarios. The moment can be fleeting or last for days.
Along with the fear and anger comes questioning yourself and every decision you have made. You think back over every meeting, project, and conversation. Did I do enough? Did I say the wrong thing to the wrong person? Did I take this seriously enough? Could I have tried harder? Did I just put my family at risk over something stupid? Did I do enough to prepare? I should have, could have, would have… It’s easy to look back and relive every step and then live with that fear until you are certain you made it out unscathed.
4. New Value Proposition
Many of us were taught to believe that if we work hard, do the right things, and continue learning, we will have a long and prosperous career. Similarly, we learn the principles of a healthy life: stay active, eat healthy foods, maintain good hygiene, have regular checkups, wear your seatbelt, and don’t play too close to powerlines. If you do all of that, you could live to be 103. We are now finding that isn’t always the case anymore. It never really was, but that that is the foundation of our beliefs. We have to have a belief system that gives us some sense of control over our lives; like we can do something to protect ourselves and the ones we love.
Layoffs shake-up that value proposition entirely. No longer do you have a sense of control over what happens to you. It almost feels random how one person is impacted and another not. Like a tornado leaving one house while flattening all those around it. There is no rhyme or reason. We can no longer take comfort in the knowledge that we are all playing by the same set of rules. This lack of a sense of control can lead to the thought process of, “Why bother since it won’t matter anyway?” In truth, it might not ultimately matter, but one strategically placed conversation could be the difference between a pink slip or a promotion.
In times of uncertainty and fear, we often begin to re-evaluate what is important to us. Am I doing what I love? What would I change if I knew this was the end? What would I have done differently? We gain new perspective and commit to doing things differently if given a second chance. We will be more optimistic and grateful, we won’t speak so harshly, we will work with a renewed sense of energy, if only given another chance to do it right. This can be a very positive outcome of uncertainty. It often gives us the push to change our lives or take risks we wouldn’t have otherwise taken. The key here is to remember this feeling, remember these decisions and act on them long after the uncertainty has passed.
6. Sense of Community
During a layoff, employees often rally against a common enemy, the organization and its leadership. It almost feels like an “us against them” mentality. As unhealthy that can be in one sense, it can have a profound, positive impact on those employees. Layoffs can bring people together. We hug co-workers we never even spoke to before. We share tips on transferring personal files and offer to reach out to our personal network to help in the job search. We offer condolences and any support we can. We praise them for their loyalty and effort through the years and lament that what happened wasn’t fair or deserved. We comfort one another and come together in unprecedented ways. We have a common sense of pain, and we all feel it.
7. Period of Mourning
- Whether you were directly impacted by a layoff or experienced it through others, there is a collective sense of great loss. We mourn for the loss of plans, opportunities, what was to be, a future that you had hoped for.
- It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to wish things were different. It’s okay to miss the life you once knew, the plans you had, and the memories that will never be made. You don’t have to be positive all the time in order to be okay, and you don’t even have to be okay all the time. That doesn’t mean you are weak, a pessimist, or selfish. Even survivors can mourn the loss of experiences, of time. I believe this period of time will become part of “the lost months”. The lost period of time where time stood still yet changed us forever. We will never get this time back. Sure, new memories will be made, but those new memories will look different, forever colored by this state of events. Some memories will be lost forever. It is sad, and it’s okay to feel sad.
As hard as it is, eventually, we realize that sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. We must move on and stop trying to figure it all out, second guess it, or make sense of it. Maybe you can prevent it from happening again, but chances are, you can’t. Things like this operate at levels much higher than yourself. You may be able to improve the chances of survival in the future, but even that can’t be guaranteed. Sometimes an entire department is cut or restructured, and even top employees are let go. There isn’t a rhyme or reason to it. That doesn’t mean stop trying, but sometimes, it just takes accepting what is and working with the hand you’re dealt.
9. Gradual Recovery & Rebuilding of Trust
- I have often heard that grieving after the death of a loved one is excruciating during the first year not only because it is still so new but also because you are experiencing every holiday, event, or anniversary without that person for the first time. For months after a downsizing event, you are still hearing about people who were let go. You are still experiencing meetings, projects, activities without those who didn’t survive the downsizing. Old feelings emerge and the same questions resurface. Why did I survive? Why did I even benefit (getting a promotion, moving to a better team)? Why them? They did everything right. Even as you try to put the pieces together and make sense of it all, life resumes. Often, life is even busier as the same work has to be done by half as many people. You have no choice but to continue to move with it. It can feel a bit like you have forgotten them or have moved on too fast, but that is the nature of time. It keeps moving.
- One difficulty with downsizing is the intense loss of trust. Employees lose trust with each other, with their leadership, and even the organization as a whole. They have learned to look over their shoulder and question everything they hear. That trust takes time to rebuild. A long time. Can I trust what my leadership says? Is it okay to let my guard down a little? Will this happen again? Without trust, there isn’t a foundation for morale and engagement, which both take a significant hit during downsizing. You must have a sense of trust to know that those in charge have your best interest at heart, that they wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, that they want you to succeed. When that trust is broken, it takes a long time to rebuild, and it doesn’t happen without a concerted effort by leadership. Unfortunately, leaders often believe that downsizing is simply an event that will quickly become a memory, and they don’t put the effort in to rebuild that trust that was incredibly damaged along the way.
10. A New Normal
As hard as a restructure is, eventually, things do get back to routine. Time passes and memories fade. We forget the fear and doubt, and the days become monotonous and stressed all over again. We learn to work with the teams that are left and adapt to a new normal. Eventually, it is all but forgotten with memories making an appearance at the strangest times.
Although there will one day be a new normal, the impact of this moment will last forever. There will always be a before this and after this. Things will change, but those changes will become a result of this moment in time. It becomes imprinted in the memory of the employees as well as the organization, and the experience makes its way into the fabric of every future decision and outcome. It becomes part of the collective memory, like an inside joke that everyone is a part of.
In a previous blog, Planning in the Midst of Uncertainty, I provided some tips on how to stay keep looking forward yourself. In the spirit of this blog, I wanted to piggyback on those ideas and provide a few quick tips for leaders (you) to help your teams (including family and friends) survive this worldwide downsizing we are all experiencing. It’s really hard for me not to expand on each of these, by I’ll try to keep it brief. With how much I have to say about this topic, I would anticipate a follow-up blog in the future. When that “blog” turns blue, you’ll know it has arrived.
- Create a sense of normalcy with routine as quickly as possible. Even small things like regular mealtimes, doing chores, movie or game night can serve as an anchor during this chaos. That said, don’t get carried away here. We all need a little extra time to grieve, ponder, and care for ourselves. Creating time and space to do that can be part of a healthy routine as well. I am not suggesting we rush back to a hard schedule, but for some, especially those who function in this state, it can be calming and provide a much-needed sense of security. Moving forward on goals and projects, even if you wonder if it will even matter, can also provide a much-needed sense of purpose and direction. Through it all, set reasonable expectations for yourself and others. This can be a powerful time of rest and reflection. Build time into your schedule to relax and enjoy a little extra time for yourself, but scheduling time to pursue your projects, dreams, and purpose can be a very powerful well-being booster.
- Turn the attention off of what is going on around you. Not by minimizing it or pretending it isn’t happening, but it doesn’t need to be a part of every meeting, meal, or conversation.
- Focus on the positive things that are happening. There are plenty!
- Take control of what you can: update your resume, prepare for the best and the worst, create emergency action plans, write down phone numbers, know what you will do if you get sick, make note of passwords and where important documents are. Don’t expect the worst, but plan for it. Not only will it serve to give you a sense of peace and control over something, but it could provide a great sense of comfort to the ones you love as well.
- Share as much information as is necessary. There is a sweet spot; find it. People tend to know when you are keeping information from them, and that can lead to distrust. Sharing the information that you can without creating additional fear and uncertainty. Many leaders treat knowledge as power and demonstrate that power by keeping it all to themselves. Don’t be like that leader.
- Listen. In times of crisis, we often respond based on our greatest needs and fears. Take the time to listen to your team. What are their fears right now? What do they need a little more of while they are vulnerable and scared? What scares you the most may not even be on their radar. What makes you feel safe and loved may not be the same as what comforts them. My son has become increasingly clingy. No amount of time or attention is enough for him. It finally occurred to me that he isn’t just being whiny and pouty, he is telling me what he needs from me in order to feel safe. While spending every moment in my office banging out content makes me feel secure, sitting on the couch close to me or playing “Jurassic Park” together is what he needs. This is a great time to learn about your team or family. Although a crisis can bring out the characteristics, this knowledge can serve to grow your relationship for years into the future.
- Share your own insecurities and fears as appropriate. Let them know they aren’t alone. That said, a leader must portray a certain amount of strength. Breaking down and bawling in front of your team daily isn’t a healthy approach either. They need to know you are not calloused to what is happening, but they need to feel your strength as well. If you panic, they panic.
- You are the leader. Create a vision and help others see it. What can life look like now and when this is all over? How can this spark a change in your family or lifestyle? How can this bring you closer? Your team or family is looking to you to set the direction. Where will you go from here?
- You set the tone for your team and family. Pay attention to your attitude, words you say, and how you act. Everyone is scared and unsure. You can fan that fire or create a sense of peace and calm in the midst of the chaos. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily feel positive and upbeat all of the time. It is your job, though, to check your responses. Before lashing out, understand where your reaction was coming from. Before snapping at your children, remember that their world has been turned upside down as well. Prioritize your mental health and work on your own perspective so you can better support others.
- Give everyone a little extra grace, including yourself. Lots and lots of grace.
I know everyone has advice, and it’s easy to think that you are the only one struggling. The reality is, I created this list for myself to deal with my own sense of loss, fear, and anxiety. Even now, I struggle to implement them all regularly. I must constantly remind myself of each and every one, but that’s what this is all about. You try, you fail, and you try again. Every day is another opportunity to do it better. There is no “perfect” when it comes to life. It’s all about making mistakes and learning from them. It’s about trying one thing and then another until you find what works for you. I love my friend Erika’s motto: Better Over Perfect. Check out her blog. I think you’ll love it!
If you remember only one thing from this post, it is to give yourself grace. I am going to need it! Oh sorry. I was talking to myself for a minute there. We all could use a little grace.