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Coach's Corner--March 10, 2008

How does a manager move a team forward after layoffs?

The Client
Name: Suzanne
Age: 50
Title: Membership Manager
Years at company: 27 years (nine in current role)
Industry: Manufacturing
Issue: Rebuilding morale and productivity after layoffs
Q. Our organization has undergone significant changes, including layoffs, in the past several months. The changes took their toll on staff morale and productivity. How can I help people adjust to the new realities to get things back on track? 

A. It’s a cliché that the only thing worse than being laid off is being one of the survivors.  Yet, the impact on everyone left in the organization is substantial, and when the emotional side is neglected, destructive behavior can result. As manager, your role is to address the emotional and practical fallout so that your team can move forward.

The inner game
Before you can help others, you must come to terms with the changes yourself. Start by looking inside and noticing your feelings. You may find feelings of loss, grief, guilt, or anger. You may even find a sense of relief. Whatever you notice, accept it without judging yourself. Then think about how you can support yourself (and get support from others) in how you feel. This will lay the groundwork for accepting and supporting these feelings in your team members.

The outer game
When you’re anticipating difficult changes, you have the luxury of planning to help people adjust. However, in your situation, you need to jump in where people are now.

Step 1: Dealing with the feelings. Ideally, people will have had plenty of opportunity to express their feelings about the changes. Realistically, there may be a lot of unprocessed emotion within the team. Even after the fact, you can make a difference. Start by sharing how you feel; you’ll create a safe environment for people to express their own feelings. Give permission for all feelings to be acceptable. And recognize that different people will prefer different settings for this process. Some will prefer the catharsis of being with a group, and others the privacy of a one-on-one conversation. Honor these preferences as much as you can given the size of your team.

Also, pay attention to what not to do. If you define an acceptable range of feelings, people will shut down. If you’re out of sync with the team’s reaction — showing premature excitement about moving forward, for example — you’ll hold the team back. And here’s a hint: many managers do these things because they haven’t come to terms with events themselves. That’s why the inner work is so important.

Step 2: Moving forward. To help with the adjustment to the new situation, build buy-in among your employees by gathering their ideas about the best ways to proceed. Employees are a great source of insight on the most efficient ways to get the work done, and enlisting their help will increase their investment in the new solutions. Watch out for the tendency to ask for ideas and then disregard them — even if the ideas aren’t an ideal fit, find a way to build on them or take a kernel of value. Then give the employees credit for their involvement. 

The last word
Change, especially layoffs, can create huge challenges to maintaining morale and productivity. With open communication and a culture of involvement, you’ll be able to help your team over this hurdle and into your new realities.Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes. Submit questions or comments about this column at Contact Liz at or 651-398-4765.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted March 10, 2008
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