Managing emotions after a layoff

Letting go of great staff when we don’t want to but are forced to because of economic factors is perhaps the hardest task we have as managers.We come to enjoy our ability to have meaningful impact not only on our areas of work but on the members of our team and their families. The downside to this is that we certainly feel the loss when we have to let people go. Not only do we feel this loss, but those who continue to work for us through such reductions are feeling their own losses and the additional burden of absorbing more work.The old trick of ‘carrot and stick’ for managing behavior seems unusable in the face of the economic pressures that forced our hand to begin with. So what can we do to manage the emotions that come with reductions in force, in ourselves, and in our remaining workers?Perhaps counterintuitively, stoicism in the face of loss is actually not perceived to be helpful by followers. Rather, being honest and authentic about one’s emotions regarding a change is perceived as being more trustworthy and confidence-inspiring. As a manager, you don’t need to ‘stuff it’, but rather there is a value to naming and expressing your own sense of loss with employees. This does not need to be done in a wide-open forum, but in individual meetings with reports there is a benefit to sharing the difficulty you have had in the process. It should go without saying that there is a fine line between doing this in a caring, open manner and turning the entire experience into something that is only about you. Remaining employees don’t want to hear how hard things are for you when good friends are now out of work and they have twice the load!In the process of sharing your feelings about the changes, it is essential to provide a listening ear as your employees express their concerns, fears, relief, and yes, even guilt over the changes occurring in their midst. Again, an open forum for this is not the goal, but rather having many individual conversations with employees is beneficial.This is harder than it seems. The manager has to be able to hear negative, even angry, statements without hearing it as personal attack. If the manager can do this, he or she will find a deeper sense of trust between themselves and the remaining workers.Balancing actBeing able to offer some explanation of how workers were treated in the-decision informing process is important, so long as it is done within legal limits and no confidential information is divulged.Employees who stay behind want to be reassured that if something similar happens to them in the future there is some degree to which they are protected. This may not necessarily be completely in a financial sense, but could be the information that the company helped the employee compile a ‘best of’ portfolio to share with future employers; was provided with some grocery cards and dining out certificates for their family to use in the next couple of weeks, or perhaps there was a subscription to an online job-coaching service or classified system that the employee can access over the coming weeks.They are small but thoughtful gestures that communicate volumes to the exiting and remaining employees about the values of the company and the leadership team. Caution, of course, is wise in balancing practicality with extravagance given the economic factors that influenced the reduction in force to begin with.Finally, after some lengthy sharing between the remaining employees and the manager in individual forums, there are benefits to broader discussions whereby remaining workers are allowed to give voice to frustration while being encouraged and celebrated for their continued work efforts.The response, ‘Well, you’ve still got a job, don’t you?’ really is wasting social capital within the organization, and managers who take this attitude will see a decrease in productivity, and — once the market picks back up — turnover.Better is the manager who can use adversity to facilitate the strength of the remaining connections. This approach requires managers who can identify and manage their emotions, share them authentically with employees, tolerate employees doing the same with them, and then finding creative ways of supporting outgoing employees while encouraging and celebrating remaining employees.If you doubt you have those managers, resiliency training may be helpful in preparing the organization for the natural ebbs and flows that occur in businesses.Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College, is the founder and principal of BDS Insight, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm. She can be reached at