Leading Culture Change: A Better Approach After the Layoff

“Happiness depends more on the inward disposition of mind than on outward circumstances.” — Benjamin Franklin

A colleague who is the SVP of HR at a technology company spent today in meetings delivering the news about layoffs.  In the list of least favorite tasks at work, this has to be in the top 3, if not #1. In his efforts at leading culture change as the key to a competitive advantage for this company’s future, layoffs create setbacks to the company culture of trust and alignment they are trying to build.

We have noticed that corporate layoffs are usually treated about on par with death in a family: People do their best to deal with it but don’t really talk about it in a way that helps everyone move through it effectively. If you’ve ever been part of a family that won’t discuss a difficult loss post-funeral, you know the toll it takes on everyone. The grief or feelings don’t go away — they go underground and erode happiness and productivity. If you believe Ben’s wisdom (above quote), after a big loss or change, shifting the “inward disposition of mind” must take place before a person can move forward. It’s not unlike the aftermath of a hurricane or big storm — depending on the size and scale of the situation, you have to rebuild before you can live in the house again. If you don’t deal with the hidden damage, you risk a weaker foundation or mold rots the place where it cannot be seen.

In a healthy corporate culture, a rebuilding approach to communication after the storm passes provides a transition pathway to productivity. (Note: This can work for any change that has created an emotional or fearful response in people).

To re-harness and focus people’s energy and enthusiasm, try this:

For a couple of weeks or so — depending on the size of your organization and how many people were effected, leaders facilitate a 10 minute “Morale Check-In.”  Here’s how it works:

  1. Begin post-layoff staff meetings by declaring “We’re going to start today with a “Morale Check-In” about the current situation at __________ (our company). This an opportunity to simply reflect on where we’re at, not fix all our problems or an open-ended gripe session. We will spend 10 minutes by the clock.”
  2. Let people know the purpose: Speaking the truth without blame or judgment is a powerful catalyst for moving forward.
  3. The leader begins with their own check-in — a bit of vulnerability on a personal level about how it has impacted him or her really helps. People will model what you do.
  4. A short 2-3 sentence recap of the vision for the organization for the future, and how the layoffs are related to it.  (sends the message this was not a meaningless cutback for no reason).
  5. Putting a simple structure to the “check-in” format may help, eg “One concern and one hope I have” — makes it less scary to participate.
  6. Suggested ground rules:
  • Anyone can speak, but nobody has to speak.
  • This is not a dialogue, only the opportunity to ‘check in’ about where we stand. It works best if people don’t respond or comment, just listen and affirm non-verbally.
  • When it’s over, it’s over … no repercussions.
  • People are invited to keep their comments brief, and speak with candor.
  • There is no response necessary by the leader or anyone else (in fact it’s preferable if one is not offered), just empathic listening and alignment: “Yes times like this can be tough.”

When the time is up, the leader/facilitator thanks everyone for speaking up and simply moves into the regular agenda for the meeting. No over-processing, no B&M session, just “let it out” and move on.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, research proves when people “feel” grief or loss, they move through it faster .. and then move forward. This simple practice allows “off-loading” of emotions that otherwise are buried, used to second-guess management, generate rumors, and other “stuck in place” behaviors.  For your team or company, taking a rebuilding approach creates more productivity, sooner.

But sidestepping the conversation about the change is the common leadership approach. Executives have typically been talking about it for weeks or months, and being in the driver’s seat, they have had ample time to get used to it. As the least-impacted group, they dismiss efforts to process the fallout as “unproductive.” This attitude bears a high price tag whose path to the bottom line is straight but often invisible.  People who are worried, distracted, or grieving aren’t fully productive and don’t bring new ideas to the table.

Don’t wait for leaders take the lead, in letting people process the bad news. The process above — well-facilitated — will be beneficial on any scale, at any time. Even in one small meeting, you can make a difference. Even start an energy wave in the workplace.

Translating negative emotions into hopeful energy during organizational change is critical to building a healthy corporate culture that can stimulate new growth (thus making layoffs less frequent).

It’s a real win/win everyone can appreciate.

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