Leading through uncertainty, especially during layoffs, is complex and challenging. Leading with empathy and transparency while making tough decisions can be brutal. Leaders’ primary focus should be to ensure that every individual within the organization—those who must depart and those who remain—feels respected, valued, and informed.
The issue at hand is the inherent complexity and emotional weight of layoffs.
Leading with empathy and transparency matters
These situations can induce a high degree of uncertainty, anxiety, and disquiet within the organization.
Not only do those directly affected experience considerable stress, but the remaining teammates and employees may also grapple with survivor’s guilt, fear of future layoffs, and reduced morale.
How an organization handles layoffs can have lasting impacts. These affect not just the immediate financial health of the company but also its culture, employee engagement, brand reputation, and future hiring efforts.
Therefore, it is crucial to approach this challenging situation with careful planning, empathy, and respect for all involved.
A potential approach to navigating layoffs
The solution to this problem can be broken down into several key strategies:
Open and Transparent Communication: When uncertainty is high, and change is constant, frequent, honest, and transparent communication can help reduce the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
Stress, uncertainty, and overwhelm demand a focused form of communication significantly different from communicating in routine, low-stress situations.
Acting “business as usual” when everything is falling apart can lead to anything but aligned, accelerated, successful, and lifesaving outcomes.
Leaders should share what they know and don’t know and how decisions are made.
This includes sharing:
- the rationale behind the layoffs,
- how many people will be affected,
- the criteria for deciding who will be laid off,
- the timeline for the process.
This will help reduce anxiety and speculation among employees.
Transparent communication can be challenging, even uncomfortable, but it builds trust with your team.
If you don’t tell them what is going on? They’ll fill in the cracks with worst-case scenarios or misperceptions, and the ripple effects could devastate your team.
Don’t leave your communications to chance, no matter how dark the circumstances.
Empathy and Support: Layoffs are draining and emotionally challenging for everyone involved—even for the teammates who don’t get laid off or let go. Acknowledging the emotional toll of layoffs and offering appropriate support to all employees can go a long way in maintaining morale and trust. This could include career transition assistance for those affected and stress management resources for the entire staff.
Maintain Dignity and Respect: Treating those laid off with dignity and respect is not only ethically correct, but can also impact how the company’s actions are perceived internally and externally. We’ve all seen the cringe-worthy Zoom recordings of leaders who haven’t handled the situations well, and it is cringe-worthy. In addition, it destroys the trust and confidence of those left behind, who are most likely not feeling valued or respected.
Vision for the Future: What do fearless leaders do, day in and day out, to marshal their people and lead the whole team to a better place than where it began? There’s no question in my mind: A fearless leader begins the work of leadership with a bold vision.
The vision you create and hand down to your people is going to be the cornerstone of the team’s success.
After the immediate crisis has passed, leaders must communicate that clear vision for the future. This vision should provide a roadmap for recovery and growth, which can help build confidence, inspire, and motivate the remaining team members.
Involvement and Empowerment: The remaining team should be involved in the recovery process, making them feel valued and giving them a sense of control during a change.
Developing this sense of agency in those still on board will be critical to them moving forward with continued innovation, creativity, and trust.
We must never forget that layoffs aren’t just about numbers on a balance sheet; they’re about people–your people. And each individual affected has their own story, their own dreams, and their own fears.
Consistent Leadership Behavior: Leading by example is this critical inflection point’s most influential leadership style. Leaders should model the attitudes and behaviors they hope to see in their team. For example, displaying positivity, resilience, connection, and commitment can encourage the same qualities in team members.
Leading through layoffs requires a delicate balance of clear communication, crisis management, and empathy while setting the organization up for future success.
Layoffs can feel like the end of a chapter. Still, with a leader’s empathy and support, they can also be the beginning of a new narrative. One that’s grounded in resilience, adaptability, and hope.
Always remember, as a leader, you are the catalyst.
Your attitude and actions set the tone for the whole team. Let that tone be one of empathy, understanding, and unwavering support.