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Leading through layoffs: five tips to restore confidence

Learn how to effectively manage post-layoff challenges, ensuring clear communication and morale rebuilding with these five communication tips from a productivity consultant and long-time executive HR leader.

Phil Geldart

Phil Geldart

leading through layoffs

Leading an organization that has gone through significant layoffs, restructuring, or downsizing is certainly a challenge.

You are faced with managing the new reality of a reduced workforce, which causes its own problems, while at the same time dealing with the morale and emotional challenges of those who remain.

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Fortunately, there are practical and effective steps you can take to win back the hearts of the folks who feel discouraged or disenfranchised.

Bear in mind that it’s not always necessary to “win back” their hearts; sometimes what’s necessary is merely to revitalize them. Rather than demoralized, many may simply be sad, confused, or uncertain.

With that said, the most important thing you can provide the organization when there are layoffs is great communication.

Related: Effective workplace communication: 6 tips for distributed teams

There are five key areas you can focus on in communicating to your teams.

1. Rationale

The first is the rationale.

Clearly explain the reason for the layoffs. Your teams need to understand why you felt the action was necessary, and the steps you took before you made the decisions you did.

Understanding is an incredibly powerful motivator for people. When I understand why a decision was made, even though I may not agree with it, I am still able to get behind it and even support it. When I don’t understand, it’s easy to criticize it, or worse, fight it.

2. Honesty

The second of the five keys is honesty.

Often, because of legal, contractual, or other reasons, we’re unable to share with everybody the reasons behind everything that led to the decision, but we can share much of it.

Do so in a way that demonstrates you are being honest, telling the people what you can tell them, and telling them what you can’t tell them, and why.

This builds trust, and trust is essential as you go through a layoff’s consequences.

3. Timeliness

The third component is that the communication must be timely.

To build trust, and be seen as honest and transparent, you must communicate information as soon as possible after the event, and if possible, before the event. Often leaders are unwilling or hesitant to share the information, and so they procrastinate, which is one of the worst things to do.

Think if you were left behind after layoffs. You would want to know as much as you could, as soon as you could, about the situation. When leaders delay, people make up information and share that among themselves.

I call this “filling vacuums.” Inevitably you can’t get to everybody with all the information immediately, so there will always be some vacuums. But if you are quick off the mark the vacuums will be small and easily filled by what you have to say.

4. Frequency

The fourth area is linked to frequency.

My company offers an “effective presentations” course in which we teach that communication typically isn’t understood until it’s been “heard 10 times in 10 different ways.”

While that may not be exactly accurate, it reflects the fact that a message delivered the first time is rarely understood and remembered as intended.

The sender has to repeat the message frequently, often with different words, examples, illustrations, or facts. As you manage your way through low morale and the gaps in understanding that occur after layoffs, you simply cannot address the situation once and forget it.

Come back at it repeatedly until you are sure the organization is back on track, aligned with the direction that you’re taking it in, and that everyone understands and has bought into the decisions that led to the layoffs in the first place.

5. Humanity

The fifth and final area is to make sure you are ‘seen to be human’.

By this, I mean that as you communicate, you don’t need to always feel as though you are “on stage” and have to be “corporate,” with every word scripted.

Show people that you care about the decisions you made and that while it may not have been easy, you had to make them. Show people that you empathize with how they feel.

Related: What is inclusive leadership?

Let them know you understand where they are coming from. In doing so you will be seen to be in the boat with them rather than on the shore shouting at them to survive in the storm.

Prioritize your people

In addition to communication, I would strongly recommend you pay attention to one other thing and that is the priorities of the people.

Those who remain after layoffs will inevitably have to pick up additional work, or come to realize that work that was done before is no longer required, or in some cases the work hasn’t really changed. People are asking whether the layoffs mean they’ve got to work longer, or harder, or do different things. These issues need to be addressed early and effectively.

To do so there’s a great tool that I would suggest, and that is that you tell people what it is they need to Stop, Start, or Continue to do.

For example:

  • Stop: “As a result of the layoffs here’s what we want you to stop doing because it’s no longer necessary, or important.”
  • Start: “Here are the things that we want you to start doing; things which perhaps you didn’t do before, but are expected to do now.”
  • Continue: “And, here are things we want you to keep doing because they remain important and you’re a vital cog to getting them done.”

You are the one your people will look to for guidance about their new priorities. If you do not make this clear they will be left to their own devices. They will inevitably end up either working on the wrong things, or working too long and too hard. In both cases, they will remain demotivated and blame it all on the layoffs.

Great leaders not only pay attention to the communication that is necessary, but also to the work that flows from the layoffs. They manage both so that people feel they are cared for and that someone is looking out for their best interests in this new world of which they are now a part.

Phil Geldart is founder and CEO of Eagle’s Flight, a company focused on improving individual and team productivity. Prior to founding Eagle’s Flight, Geldart was with Nestlé Canada, where he worked for 18 years, the last five of which he served as a member of the executive team in the capacity of Senior Vice President of Human Resources. He also is author of several books, including In Your Hands: The Behaviors of a World Class Leader, Experiential Learning: Changing Behavior to Improve Performance, and Lead Yourself Lead Others: Eight Principles of Leadership.

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