Leading through downsizing: Re-engaging employees

To re-engage your team, ensure each person is fully seen, heard and taken into account.

Without a common enemy, leaders are having a tough time rallying employees.

2020 heralded an unprecedented time in the history of work. Given the requirement to shut down, we saw a migration to virtual work and seismic shifts in which businesses survived… or didn’t. Everyone was facing similar circumstances which allowed leaders to rally employees around a common cause – survival.  When layoffs occurred during the pandemic, it hurt, but everyone understood.

Three years later, we find ourselves in a continuing challenge, this time with uncertain economic headwinds that have led organizations to consider separations or reductions – but without a common “enemy.” It’s imperative to recognize the feelings and accommodate the needs of employees still in the workforce who are dealing with seeing their team members lose their jobs. Studies show that nearly three-quarters of employees retained after a layoff saw their productivity decline afterwards, while 69 percent said that the quality of their company’s product or service deteriorated. When these respondents were asked why they felt that way, they expressed feelings of guilt, anxiety, burnout and anger. 

While challenging times like these can certainly be disheartening and as stressful for you as a leader as it is for your team, there are ways to bring everyone together, and keep your remaining employees motivated and focused. The key is to focus on re-capturing the hearts and minds of your people first – make the focus on work second in line.

Communicate – Be open and honest.

  • Tell your team what you know, and what you don’t know. Share the facts. Ambiguity is hard on people, but continued communication, honesty and transparency, are important antidotes to the fear of the unknown. If you’re in a bad situation, hiding it won’t help. A recent article in MIT Sloan cites research suggesting that companies who publicly disclose unflattering information about lapses and misdeeds are effectively building trust. 
  • Instead of underestimating your people, trust them. The more information you can provide, the better they’ll understand the situation and be willing to help. Be sure that the case for change has been clear and the approach to any actions have been as fairly considered as possible.
  • Keep communicating, the need to be informed continues while your team re-adjusts.

Listen – Give your people a chance to fully process their experience.

  • By listening openly to your people, you can learn key insights about how they feel about the situation and what they’d be willing to do. Meet with your team, one-to-one and in small groups, to allow employees to process the situation and come back with thoughtful responses.
  • Craft your conversations for the purpose of understanding, empathizing and hearing ideas about how to “work forward.” Listen carefully, without interrupting. These conversations will reveal key insights about what your people are experiencing and can inform decisions on how to realistically move forward. Employees will feel less like victims and more like partners who are invested in making solutions work.

Re-inspire – Once you’ve given your people a chance to let you know how they feel, and they trust you’ve heard them, turn your attention to the future.

  • Focus on the road ahead, and your team’s importance to the success of that future, while acknowledging the current reality empathically.
  • Too often during an economic downturn, we leaders expect less “buy-in” and accept less accountability from our employees, often out of our own feelings of guilt and resentment. We may believe that engagement and happiness come from a lack of stress at work, when in fact engagement and motivation come from teamwork, accountability and a shared vision. 
  • Focus on progress each day. Hold your team accountable to succeed despite the circumstances. Let their motivation be built by overcoming difficulties under the direction of a great leader who cares about them, recognizes their great achievements and values the employee experience.

Changes like these are unsettling. By bringing everyone into the equation and conversation, we can bring our teams into the future.