Running Race

ADP released statistics that we all intuitively expected this week: job loss data shows that layoffs are continuing at a very high pace in the US economy.  Most organizations have experienced lay-offs and it’s very likely more will be coming.

What we may never see in the statistics is the loss of productivity surrounding these moves.  We can quantify cost savings, but how do you put a number on the hours spent by leaders making difficult staffing decisions or the anxious days spent by employees thinking about, whispering about, and txting about the chances they may be let go.  The whole exercise, while often necessary, can paralyze the organization.

I was talking with a leader recently whose company was in the middle of this process. They had identified the people who would leave and the date it would happen.  Now everyone was just nervously waiting for the event itself.  In a moment of honesty, this leader finally said something like, “I’m just looking forward to it being over.”

It’s understandable.  We want to believe as leaders that once we get past the necessary, but unpleasant task of lay-offs, we can get back to normal – like somehow “real work” has simply been put on hold and we’ll go back to how things were before with just a few less people.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way I think it works.  Yes, there’s a momentary sigh of relief once the layoff event has passed.  Leaders can stop feeling awkward around their direct reports.  Employees can stop looking over their shoulders (for now). But then reality hits.  All of that anticipation often leads to a loss of momentum.  The remaining crew is on the boat, but the wind has died down significantly.

Like the situation with our global economy, leaders can make this situation better or worse by their actions.  A few things they must do to get the ship moving again:

  • Tell the truth – People want to hear good news and we should give all that we can.  But one core question the remaining staff is asking is “Do these leaders have credibility?  Do I trust them?” Balanced, truthful information (with as much disclosure as is appropriate) goes a long way to re-building trust that may have been bruised during the past few months.
  • Re-Focus – A client of mine jokes that he’s been told to “do more with less” so many times that he would like to meet Les.  Yes, there was probably some fat in the organization before.  But asking people to run the same business with a fraction of the resources eventually destroys a leader’s credibility.  Better to be realistic, acknowledge that the organization will simply have to stop doing some things, and focus people on what is vital for the future. This may require getting your leadership team together and making tough strategic decisions.  The alternative isn’t pretty.
  • Turn up the feedback – John Grau, my first boss, liked to say, “In the absence of data, people make up their own.” This may be even more true in tough times.  So go on an intentional hunt to find progress and recognize it. Help people see both the signs of progress and any causes for concern.  But by all means don’t retreat to your office. Yes, leaders get tired too – but this is a time where their energy matters more than ever.

Lay-off’s (and other cost measures) are an ending – but in significant ways they also signal a beginning.  What other high-gain actions do you think leaders should take in times like these?