Being a manager in the midst of downsizing is hard enough. There’s the initial shock, the communication, the “I wonder if I’m impacted too” angst, and of course, the really painful decisions involved in selecting who will go.
What’s equally difficult is helping your team recover, establishing a new normal, and figuring out how in the world you’ll get it all done with fewer people.
If you’re going through or recovering from a downsizing, first let me say, I’m sorry. I know it’s hard.
You care about the humans on your team (those who are gone and those who remain); perhaps you’ve also watched some peers go too, leaving you with some survivor guilt, and you’re worried about how to sustain momentum with a reduced staff, and, of course, there’s the matter of rebuilding morale.
I’ve been there. There was one dark point in my career where I received a call once a quarter for two years, giving me my Reduction in Force (RIF) numbers. By the end of that run, I had half the team serving my growing customer base and had lost some of my best managers. We managed to sustain momentum, but it wasn’t easy.
Much of what I learned from employee engagement came from that time. You’ve got to be extra connected and extra-human during times like that.
How to Lead Well After a Downsizing
Depending on how the downsizing was handled you might have some stupidity-recovery work to do. If you’re still neck deep in the downsizing, read my article, 5 Mistakes to Avoid During a Restructure, to avoid these sadly all-too-frequent mistakes.
If you’ve moved on to the rebuilding stage, here are a few tips that can help.
1. Keep Your Cool
I know it’s hard. It’s tempting to vent to your team as you stare at the mountain of work to do with fewer people to do it. Seek out some trusted advisors and do your venting behind closed doors. Your team needs to feel confident that you’ve got a path forward. Blaming others or cursing the universe only makes it worse.
2. Help Your People Find Jobs
Do whatever you can to help your downsized team members land well. It’s the human, decent thing to do for the impacted employees, and it will go a long way in building trust and loyalty with those who remain. Even once they’ve left your company there are plenty of ways you can help with networking and other support. Nothing feels better than helping a great employee caught up in a bad twist of fate land well.
3. Re-recruit Your “A” Players
There’s no question, downsizing makes everyone a bit twitchy, particularly when cuts involve strong contributors who just happened to me in the wrong chair when the music stopped. Be sure your “A” players know how much you value them and help them see the broader opportunities that are available to them, beyond their current role. Help them develop utility player competencies to make them invaluable as the company evolves.
4. 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 “nothing can go” 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 burnout or sacrificing quality. Get serious about what can go.
5. 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.
6. 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 arm’s 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 somehow did, and in many cases thrived. Leadership is often about doing what feels impossible.
See also: My recent interview in the Wall Street Journal with Amy Shellenbarger.