Change happens on a daily basis in our organizations and it affects every individual in a different way. Even during a reduction in force, HR leaders can expect a variety of reactions both from those employees being transitioned out of the company during the layoff and from those employees remaining. Most of the time, HR leaders spend a lot of time, effort, and thought preparing for the layoff and the actual notification process. The one element they tend to put off until well after the layoff, is a plan for returning remaining teams to productivity and dealing with the emotions and reactions of people who witness their friends and colleagues being asked to leave.

In a recent #SmartTalkHR webinar, Building Resiliency with Surviving Employees After a Layoff, I discussed some strategies to engage the employees who remain after a reduction in force. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.

Below is a short summary of the webinar and my comments, including:

  • Defining change, transition, and resilience
  • The stages of change
  • How to best manage through change
  • How to help your organization and your people be more resilient

Change, transition, and resilience

 Change can be good or bad. It can be something positive, like a promotion, or it can be less than positive, like a layoff. Although there are lots of different kinds of change, it’s a fact of life. Whether it’s positive or negative, planned or unplanned, change happens. How people react to change can be the difference between an organization that is able to withstand events, like layoffs, and those that continue to struggle due to lost productivity and poor employer brand image.

Understanding how to motivate individuals and build teams that can work through change to find renewed optimism and purpose requires understanding some of the terms around change – transition and resilience.

Transition is the psychological process that someone goes through when adapting to change. Again, both good and bad. Feelings run the gamut when it comes to change. Just because change is positive, it doesn’t mean all the feelings associated with it are going to be positive, and vice versa.

Resilience is all about the ability to recover readily from adversity and bounce back from change stronger and wiser. If you think about resilience in relationship to your team at work, you can probably imagine a couple of people who really stand out as resilient – those that are able to adapt quickly to change. They don’t dwell on the past or overthink their failures. They really look forward and move forward. Resilient team members have a certain point of view – they feel like they are the masters of their fate and that the results they get and the experiences they have are within their control.

People who are naturally resilient tend to:

  • See change as an opportunity for growth and learning
  • Adapt quickly
  • Accept change either immediately or over a short amount of time

Not everyone is naturally resilient, but most people can be taught how to think and act more resiliently. There are many things that business leaders can do to encourage the people in your teams to be more resilient. Resilience is like a muscle. If you haven’t been to the gym in a while, perhaps your muscles are not what you’d like, but if you go and spend the time and lift those weights, your muscles are going to grow. It’s very much the same with resilience.

Just as you can visualize people on your team who are naturally resilient, you can probably bring a few people to mind who use ineffective coping strategies and don’t deal well with change.

People who do not experience change well tend to:

  • Experience anxiety and fear
  • Feel depressed
  • Remain in denial that the change is real

The psychology of change

 When we experience a particularly challenging change, our brains go into fight or flight mode. To understand how we process emotion, let’s look at the three brain systems involved when we are faced with big change, like a layoff.

There are three systems of the brain that contribute to fight or flight.

  1. The cerebellum – an ancient part of the brain that controls motor function and our basic for survival, like breathing
  2. The limbic system – the reactionary part of our brain, here our emotions and our visceral reactions live. This is where our flight or fight reactions stem from
  3. The cerebral cortex – the action part of our brain that processes information, makes decisions, and decides how we will perceive something

Understanding these systems helps us to understand, and manage other people, and ourselves, as we face drastic change -- such as being laid off. The emotional response to that circumstance originates in our limbic system -- the instinct to fight or flee. That instinctual reaction is then filtered through the prefrontal cortex, which is that human filter that incorporates our past experiences and our natural tendencies. Finally, we have our chosen action, the way we decide to respond to a situation at hand. This is where resilience comes into play.

People who are resilient choose to respond to adversity differently than those who are not resilient. Before we can build resilience in our teams and in individual employees, we first have to deal with the immediate emotional reaction.

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The five stages of transition

People who are affected by a layoff go through five stages of transition, much like the stages of grieving. You would probably expect that people who are losing their jobs are going to feel a range of emotions through a period of time.

What people don’t often expect is that the people who are not losing their jobs, but are staying at the company, oftentimes feel the same emotions. While those emotions may not be felt in the same way, or in the same degree of intensity, remaining employees will still be affected by the same emotions experienced by those who are transitioning out of the company.

The stages of transition for remaining employees:

  1. Denial and shock
  2. Depression and stress
  3. Panic and guilt
  4. Resentment, skepticism, anxiety
  5. Renewed optimism

Most often, remaining employees do not experience positive feelings during the layoff process. Instead, they may be frustrated and withdrawal or continue on as though nothing has happened while experiencing negative emotions privately.

Highly resilient employees will be able to process their emotions quickly and return to productivity, while others will need more time and guidance through the process. The goal, of course, is to get everyone on the team to the last stage – renewed optimism. That’s where you’ll find the high energy, openness to learning, and renewed commitment to the group or role.

It’s important to remember that everyone doesn’t go through these emotions in the same order, or over the same amount of time. Some employees may feel optimistic at the onset and then become depressed or anxious as time goes on. Training managers up front to be prepared for these emotional stages and teaching them to keep an eye out for the reactions of staying employees will help everyone move through the stages of transition in a positive fashion. Getting to a place of renewed optimism is, of course, best for productivity but also – and probably more importantly – best for each individual’s own well-being.

In the webinar, I discuss in detail what company leaders can do to lead their teams to productivity and personal well-being, including:

  • Remaining present and accessible
  • Adopting an attitude of empathy
  • Proactively communicating
  • Creating short-term goals for teams and individuals
  • Building resilience in the long-term

To find out some concrete strategies for moving remaining employees from anger and despair to optimism, productivity and well-being, view the webinar in its entirety here.