what to do when your team is downsized

I’ve never met a manager who felt they had more headcount than they needed. In fact, the number one answer I get when I ask managers what they need most is “More people!” And yet most of us have been on the receiving end of the conversation saying “We’re going to need to figure out how to do more with less.” In fact, there was one dark period of my career that I received that call every quarter for 2 years. By the end of that run, I had half the team and more customers. The wacky part was, results kept improving.

5 Things to Do When Your Team is Downsized

As painful as downsizing is, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s possible to keep results going up, while your team size is going down. It requires a positive outlook, innovative thinking, and most importantly trust and support.

1.Keep Your Cool

Don’t let your team see you cry or whatever your equivalent of a tantrum is. Don’t vent to your team or blame “them (those above you, or HR)” for being clueless to how hard you’re already working. Get it out of your system off line and show up strong. Your team needs to feel confident that you’ve got a path forward, not get more unrattled as you lose your footing.

2. Help Your People Find Jobs

If the headcount being cut are not vacancies but real human beings, put them first. Do whatever you can to help them land well. Besides being the right thing to do for the impacted employees, it will go a long way in building trust and loyalty with those who remain.

3. Eliminate Less Necessary Work

Before you tell me “Nothing we’re doing is unnecessary,” get your team together and ask (and then don’t let them tell you that either). Look under every rock for time spent on seldom reviewed reports or redundant processes. You can’t do the same work with fewer people for long without causing people to tip over, or sacrifice quality. Get serious about what can go.

4. Strategize Failure

If you can’t find enough work to eliminate, know that some balls are likely to drop (or at least be picked up on the second bounce). Don’t pretend that every goal is equally important, help your team to prioritize. Be sure they know that if they have to screw-up something, which of their goals is less critical.

5. Go Outside Your Team for Support

You’re probably thinking, “Karin, now you’re really talking crazy, if we’re pressed, so is everyone else.” I bet they are. But I also know that in every organization, there is always redundant work going on. Instead of viewing other teams as the competition, or keeping staff at an arms distance to get them out of your hair, look for opportunities to partner. Could you pool functions and create a shared services group? Could you lend resources back and forth during peak times? Have the confidence to know it can be done, and the humility to ask for help.

Downsizing is never easy. I also know that of all the times I thought we’d been cut too far to survive, we someone how did, and in many cases thrived. Leadership is often about doing what feels impossible.

Your turn. What advice do you have for managers facing a downsizing of their team?
Filed Under:   Career & Learning, Energy & Engagement, Results & Execution
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

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What People Are Saying

Steve Borek   |   01 June 2015   |   Reply

I’ve been part of a few right sizing moments.

I’d say the best thing a leader can do is be real with the team. Don’t paint a rosy picture.

Just tell it like it is.

Steve Borek   |   01 June 2015   |   Reply

Tell it early
Tell it all
Tell it yourself

This is the formula created by Lanny Davis, former counsel to President Bill Clinton.

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |  

Steve, Thanks. I all for real AND early, all, and yourself. Great advice.

Stacey Thomas   |   01 June 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for the great advice! I am currently in an organization that has a reduction in force every quarter. My team has continued to perform at a high level. We have come to expect the notifications and my advice to my team is to have a Plan A, B and C. I am honest, open and realistic with my team therefore as soon as I know they are informed.

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Stacey, My thoughts are with you. That’s so hard. Sounds like you’re approaching it elegantly.

James McKey (@jmckey)   |   01 June 2015   |   Reply

Great post and very emotionally aware of you to realize this needs to be talked about. Not only that, but you provide some great tactics that seems to be the best of what I’ve seen some few leaders do in this situation.

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

James, Thanks so very much.

Alli Polin   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

I was leading a division where we had to lose 1/2 of our headcount (but none of the work was about to disappear.) Unfortunately, the rumor mill kicked in before real information got out and then we had an even bigger challenge on our hands. I was also not remotely grateful to colleagues who thought that they were helping me when people on my team would ask “are there going to be cuts?” and they responded “no way,” The truth is oftentimes painful, but it’s important to be in front of rumors and avoid out-right lies at al costs.

Great piece for people to think about now – before it’s time to make cuts.

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Alli, Thanks so much for sharing your experience. When the rumors come out before reality it’s always a mess. I’ve seen that lying pattern too. NEVER a good idea.

Terri Klass   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Downsizing can be so difficult and cause great fear. I saw this when working with a hospital system and it seemed as if each person was constantly picking up new responsibilities daily.

What seemed to help was being open about each person’s concerns and figuring out what to do with the survivors without overburdening them. Additionally, keeping the information flowing is critical so that “connecting the dots” wasn’t necessary. When a lack of information is present, people make things up and rumors fly.

Thanks Karin for another great post!

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Terri, Thank you. You raise really good tips here. I so agree with you.

Cindy Kramer   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Because of your amazing leadership I was able to recover from being downsized. You were open minded and allowed me to try new things and because of that I learned many new skills, and achieved a lot of successes that ultimately allowed me to make a rewarding career change. I am forever grateful for being able to work with such an amazing person and leader.

Karin Hurt   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

Cindy, Thanks so much for your very kind words. That means a lot. You are a rock star, that makes it easy to support you!

LaRae Quy   |   02 June 2015   |   Reply

It’s important to be as honest and transparent as soon as possible. The first person they need to hear this message from is YOU, and not at the water cooler….

Karin Hurt   |   04 June 2015   |   Reply

LaRae, So agree. Nothing makes people feel more betrayed than that.

Bruce Harpham   |   03 June 2015   |   Reply

Responding to negative situations is challenging. That’s why I like your positive approach here, especially “2. Help Your People Find Jobs” and “3. Eliminate Less Necessary Work”). I’m reminded of that infamous comment to make the most of a crisis.

Karin Hurt   |   04 June 2015   |   Reply

Thanks, Bruce. I’m so with you. I also think it’s important to remember that when someone is going through downsizing it really does feel like a crises to them, and it’s often not the only difficult thing going on in their lives.