Organizations of all kinds are experiencing a wrenching pandemic of layoffs that is redefining effective leadership and employee notions of motivation, loyalty and commitment.
The psychological employment contract is evolving from one that viewed people as long-term assets to be nurtured and developed to one that sees people as short-term costs to be managed and often cut. Faith-based organizations are not exempt from this paradigmatic shift.
The employees who lose their jobs aren’t the only ones who suffer when an organization lays off staff. Workers who remain in the workplace experience what I call “layoff survivor sickness,” which is characterized by anger, fear and anxiety.
A leader’s job is to rebuild a team decimated by layoffs. Here are five tips to help facilitate this transition.
Brush up on helping skills; lighten up on controlling behavior. Don’t be afraid of feelings and emotions; they are the currency of the realm for helping survivors. Telling survivors to “suck it up” or that they’re lucky to have kept their job is the wrong strategy.
Layoff survivors are not motivated by luck. In fact, evidence is clear that the opposite happens -- they suffer from survivor guilt and its cousins: anxiety and depression. Managers who have been most successful in helping survivors overcome the trauma of layoffs have formed helping relationships with their employees.
This requires managers to practice and, often, re-learn basic helping skills such as active listening, reflecting emotions and giving and receiving non-evaluative feedback. In many years of working with layoff survivors, I have yet to hear the best boss described as excelling in directing, controlling or evaluating. The best bosses are almost always described as empathetic listeners, coaches, straight communicators and helpers.
Helping skills are not soft or touchy-feely -- they are hard. It is much easier to be cynical, controlling and closed than to be open, facilitative and optimistic.
The bad news is that helping skills are not usually what got managers promoted. I’ve found this to be true in faith-based and non-profit organizations as well as in commercial systems. The good news is that most organizational leaders have the ability, and, with some coaching, the desire to learn basic helping skills.
Re-recruit the survivors. The overwhelming consensus of downsizing research is that layoffs do not achieve their “going in” goals. Survivors in most organizations are angry, depressed, anxious and fearful. They are not able or willing to take risks or focus on their work. At the very time organizations need them to be the most creative and energetic employees hunker down in the trenches, absorbed in their own toxic survivor symptoms.
People are not “things” to be added or deleted from the production equation with mathematical sterility. Managers need to move beyond layoff administration and planning into formulating strategies for layoff recovery. This involves re-recruiting demoralized employees and working to help them overcome debilitating emotions.
Facilitate venting. This goes against the cultural norms of many organizations. Whining and complaining generally aren’t tolerated. Ironically, I have found that many non-profit organizations are more rigid in this regard than for-profit organizations.
But the reality is that without the healthy externalization of layoff-induced anger, fear and anxiety, employees will remain crippled by layoff survivor sickness. In fact, research shows their symptoms will get worse. It is essential that managers lead the way in establishing organizationally sanctioned ways to express repressed feelings. Many successful organizations do this in groups with the help of a facilitator; others require managers to meet individually with employees.
Communicate with truth and authenticity. It is a myth that, in troubled times, managerial communication needs to be clear, planned, objective and structured. Expressing uncertainty and ambiguity actually can be useful. Employees would much rather have managers admit they don’t know something than have managers say nothing or make something up.
It is also important that leaders and managers understand and communicate the truth about employment security. When the economy improves, the frequency of mass layoffs will diminish, but long-term, lifetime employment with one organization is a thing of the past. Managers need to encourage employees to maintain transferable marketable skills and continually cultivate their professional networks.
Attract employees with satisfying work. The best strategy for organizational survival in the new reality will be to attract employees with the work itself. The most talented employees will have options; they will choose their employers because they want to be there, not because they have to be there. Employees will be loyal to their profession and motivated more by the work itself rather than the organization where they perform that work.
Successful organizations will help employees self-motivate by finding satisfying work and an inner sense of purpose rather than relying on contrived, external motivational techniques. Employees who are working in congruence with their unique gifts and purpose will perform better and improve their job security.
In the new reality, successful managers will be much more collaborative and have the ability to lead empowered employees. Employees will not be tied in by benefits, services and social systems that reward fitting in and conformity or motivated by fear of job loss. Helping employees motivate themselves through work that reflects their human spirit seems a perfect opportunity for leaders of faith-based organizations.