Q - I just found out the company I work for is going to be doing cuts. I manage a team of 20 people and I have no idea what to say to them. How much do I tell them? How do I keep them motivated? How do I make sure I don't end up getting laid off myself? Would love your advice on managing through a layoff period.
A - If you work for long enough you'll inevitably go through a company-wide downsizing or layoff. It sucks. For everyone. There is no management course in business school about how to handle these situations. Most of us just have to go through it once or twice, make all the mistakes, and hopefully not do too much damage along the way. That's what happened to me.
As a manager, you typically get a little bit of advanced notice about layoffs which can be a blessing and a curse. On the upside, with a little notice you can prepare a game plan for how you’ll help your team through the process, and for how you'll make sure you keep your own job and ideally come out on top. In my book I talk about using periods of change and uncertainty to your advantage. It’s in these chaotic periods when your competitors (peers) tend to be at their worst, but the opportunities for advancement tend to be at their greatest. For more on that subject, check out my blog on embracing change.
Today I'm going to focus more on tips and tactics for helping your team through this tumultuous period. In my experience, most managers make some pretty fundamental mistakes - often with the best of intentions - when managing through a layoff or downsizing.
Here are my 3 best tactics for managing through a layoff:
Don't Spin Everything into a Positive. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to go through several corporate layoffs in the course of my career. I’ve had experience on both sides of the exit room table – as a manager performing layoffs and as an employee being let go. One of the worst things a manager can do when layoffs are happening, is to patronize the staff by sugar coating the situation or pretending it is something other than what it is.
Too many managers, in well-intentioned but misdirected efforts to uplift the team, talk around the issue instead of addressing it head on. Some managers will even try to manufacture a positive spin on the situation in some misguided attempt to pacify people. This is a huge mistake. My advice to managers navigating a layoff is to trust your team. They can handle the bad news. In my experience, employees are at their best when you offer them full transparency into the problems you’re facing. If you present the issue with honesty and humility, people will rally together and respond positively no matter how dire the situation may be. But when you deliver half-truths or packaged messages, or corporate positioning when a crisis is present, employees (people) can be at their worst. The best way to control gossip, griping, disengagement and employees jumping ship when layoffs are a foot, is to be honest and enlist their support in making things better.
Don't Turn into a Robot - Be Human. When we know a layoff is coming, many of us go into a defensive shell. All of a sudden we start talking differently, acting differently - in some miscalculated or instinctive move to avoid making a mistake. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We don’t want to give out too much information. We’re worried about putting the company at risk. The lives of good people are being affected and the future of the company is often on the line. The stakes are high so we clam up. Unfortunately in our effort to avoid doing the wrong things, that's exactly what we do. All of a sudden we start talking in a new lexicon. We refer to departing employees as “resources” and “assets”. We start evoking contrived high level corporate messages instead of having real conversations with people. We effectively turn into robots.
My advice to managers when a layoff is happening, is to dial up the humanity instead of dialing it down. The first step in doing this is to treat all departing employees with the utmost respect – as human beings. Talking about people as assets or human capital or resources is callous and instantly demotivating for remaining team members. Never do this. There is no more important time to be respectful and grateful to your team than when they are leaving. When I’m faced with this situation I make sure to let the team know how I’m actually feeling. I don’t try to hide my emotional state from them. I don't think being unmoved and stone faced is real leadership. You want to show people there is a path forward but you must first show them you care or they'll never follow you. In my experience the best managers express genuine sadness and let the remaining team members know how hard it’s been to make this decision for the company. When you layout all the facts and feelings for people and ask them to rally together in support, they’ll surprise you with their courage and commitment.
Take on a Big, Meaningful Project. One of the best things you can do to protect your own job and the jobs of the people on your team, is to take on bigger projects. While being a reliable, consistent manager might keep you employed for a while and make your boss happy, these are the first people to get let go in a layoff. The managers who make it through the layoffs are the ones tied in some way to the high visibility growth initiatives of the company. When you participate in bigger projects you get exposure to leaders from across the organization. This is particularly important when downsizing is happening and executives discuss the difficult choices they have to make. The more relationships you’ve built with leaders in the company, the safer you’ll be.
My advice to managers is to seek out big projects – even if it’s just as a participant or supporting member of the team. Attaching yourself in some way to high growth projects may be your ticket to longevity. The same principle applies to the members of your team. The more big projects they are a part of the safer they will be from cuts. I also recommend finding a new, meaningful project for the team to focus on once a layoff has occurred. It can be a great way to get the team motivated again and focused on the future.
I hope you don't have to go through many layoffs in your career. It’s one of the hardest things you have to face as a manager and as an employee. But as difficult as it is, it’s important to be ready for when they inevitability come around so you can make the best of a challenging situation. I hope these tips are helpful to you.