Engaging Staff During Employee Down Sizing

Updated Over a Week Ago


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Down Sizing

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Although there are times when down sizing takes everyone by surprise, there are many times when organizations alert employees about pending layoffs and give team members time to prepare.

I  met with an old colleague who went through the “waiting” period and we spoke about how helpful it would be for leadership to proactively engage employees during these difficult and trying times.

After our conversation, I remembered what a good friend of mine once told me;

“Down sizing takes a bit of our soul every time.”

Unfortunately, I have had to manage staff through layoffs a few times during my career and have experienced the pain and overall feeling my friend captured with his statement. If you are leading through one of these difficult times, here are a few ideas that may help engage and prepare your staff, while keeping as much of your soul as you can.

Here are some initiatives to put in place during these times:

Identifying Strengths

In order to leverage our strengths, we first need to identify them. I have found that the possibility of losing their jobs gives staff members added motivation to identify what they are naturally good at.

Tom Rath does a great job of persuading us to focus on what we do best, instead of the opposite.

We all have natural strengths and unless we identify them, they will continue hiding in plain sight. There is no better time to focus on growing our strengths than when we fear for our jobs.

Implement Training Opportunities

While your budget may be dwindling, some of your staff members may have expertise in areas that are in high demand. For example, I have found that Project Management, Web Design, and Social Media, are popular skills for communication and IT teams.

You may be able to identify areas of interest in your field and ask the experts in your staff, and/or colleagues outside the team, to conduct training sessions for anyone interested in learning these skills. This is a low-cost strategy that provides learning opportunities for some staff members while giving experts in the organization an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence.

If you can implement a training effort, encourage your staff members to notice how their strength themes may be revealing themselves as they learn new skills. For example, many of them may have strength themes such as Learner, Input, Activator or Maximizer. Each one of these themes are very helpful in the process of learning and developing new skills.

Knowing the strength themes they possess will help staff members understand their reactions and ideas during the learning process.

Hands-On Experience

In addition to helping your staff learn new skills, you can partner with them to identify real projects in which they can actually practice the skills they are learning. In my experience, this has been easier than expected. One of my teams, for example, desperately needed help in some of the areas I mentioned above. All we needed to do was think creatively and agree that we were going to make mistakes. After all, what did we have to lose? Our jobs were in jeopardy anyway.

I am happy to say that we trained 3 project managers and a number of print designers were able to learn web design and animation skills. Two staff members were eventually promoted.

A Culture of Transparency, Trust and Courage

I highly recommend that you focus your leadership on enabling a culture where it is okay to make mistakes and take risks by leading initiatives outside the unit. These are extremely difficult times and the level of fear tends to be high and crippling to the staff’s ability to perform. It is critical for you to promote trust and honor feedback while minimizing conflict.

You should hold frequent staff meetings to share lessons learned and strategies. During these meetings, you should play a mix of funny and inspirational videos.

Two of my favorites include:

Steve Job’s 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford

Killing Good Ideas – Fire

Humor and inspiration are critical during times of layoffs and videos do a great job of setting the tone for team meetings. I always play videos at the beginning of our team meetings, during all business conditions. It’s a good way to start meetings as the videos get everyone laughing or inspired.

While some down sizing may be inevitable, things may not be as severe as expected. Doing all you can to provide skills and experience for those who leave the organization will help everyone deal with the pain that comes with the decisions made by management. For those who remain, you will be able to keep the momentum going and possibly add valuable skills to the operation.

My hope is that this article may be helpful to readers who may be experiencing similar situations and have the influence to implement proactive strategies to engage staff members during any business cycle.

Implementing Proactive Strategies

If these strategies are of interest, here are some questions to consider:

  • Does your organization have a plan for engaging employees during any situation?
  • Are you an influential leader that can promote this type of change in your organization?
  • What obstacles may you face in promoting actions or initiatives like the ones I have listed above?
  • Is the level of fear high in your organization?

How Do You Engage Staff During Down Sizing?

If you have ideas about employee down sizing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.
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