Managing After Downsizing

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So, you survived the downsizing. Your company did something that will probably show minimal, if any, return -- and will make your job as a manager a living hell. Your life has changed dramatically. People on your staff are frightened, fearful that they may be next to go. They will lie low hoping that they can be spared the next swing of the ax. (You may be feeling the same thing as well.) Teamwork will decrease as people begin to view the person next to them as a threat to that increasingly scarce resource -- a job.

At the same time, you will be encouraged to build a strong work unit capable of handling the challenges -- you know the drill. Your financial targets will get higher. You will find that everyone is expected to do more with less. Hours and stress will undoubtedly increase. Welcome to the new world of management.

You have a choice. You can give in to the strong temptation to say "what's the use" or you can attempt to create a productive and worthwhile workplace from the ashes of the downsizing. Lying low has its own risks. Your contribution diminishes and makes you a likely target for the next round of firings. Attempting to rise like a Phoenix is very difficult, but ultimately is better for you as well as your team.

Resistance -

Downsizing and other unilaterally inflicted changes create resistance. Knowing how to work with -- and not against -- resistance is an essential key to rebuilding your work team. Yogi Berra once said, "You've got to have deep depth." I find that most don't come close to heeding Yogi's admonition when it comes to resistance. Here are some things I've learned:

Resistance is good. From the point-of-view of the person resisting, it is always positive. People resist to protect themselves. It is a natural reaction to any changes that people perceive as threatening.

Our common reactions to resistance usually make matters worse. When people oppose us, we tend to try to make people comply. We use power, manipulation, cut deals, or try to convince them why they must change. None of these approaches shows any respect for those who resist. None of these approaches allow us to be influenced by their concerns or opposition. These responses build an even larger wall between us.

Rebuilding -

We need to develop strategies that both respect resistance and rebuild the organization. Working with both sides of that paradox is the challenge and the hope. As I studied managers and project leaders who were good at rebuilding teams, I found that they were adept at helping people examine their resistance to these changes and create a new vision for a possible future together.

Often they began by allowing people to acknowledge the loss. We think of ourselves as rational animals, but often forget that we are more than our intellects. We possess hearts and souls that can be wounded by changes. One healthcare organization was trying to rebuild after a downsizing and restructuring. Months had gone by. The changes had taken place on paper, but people were still locked into the old ways of working. Although we never thought of this image at that time, my colleague and I helped them hold a funeral. Staff had an opportunity to talk about what they lost and gained during this change. Many people were amazed to learn that others felt the same way they did. Departments that seemed to be the winners, sometimes felt a tremendous loss. In looking at the collective lists of losses and gains, it was easy to see there was far more commonality than difference among the lists.

You might think that all this depressing talk would enervate them, but it did just the opposite. Conversation began to switch naturally to ways they could join together to make the change work. The meeting ended with people developing sound strategies for making this new structure work.

Sometimes it is necessary to go even deeper and explore the resistance. The downsizing may have caused people to distrust management. And, as a manager, they may now distrust you. Doesn't seem fair, but that's life for you. They need to be able to express these fears out loud without threat of reprisal. If the fear stays underground, then efforts to rebuild the team will falter. An interesting thing happens when people see that we are truly interested in hearing what's in their hearts and on their minds, they open up. And, for the managers who have the courage to listen, as jazz musicians say, with big ears, they can learn a lot.

Getting resistance up on the table makes dialogue on the real issues that block productive change possible. I worked with a team that was all-but-overwhelmed by changes occurring to it. We spent an hour just identifying the changes and their reactions to them. The reason this conversation didn't lead to a gripe fest, was that the manager in charge put it in the context of finding ways to work together more effectively.

If one side of the paradox is getting resistance out into the light of day, the other, equally important side is getting people involved in shaping their own future. This does not suggest that all decisions are made by consensus, but that people can help shape how the work will be completed in their units. Corning senior management develops corporate vision and values statements that are sent to each department. Each unit works within the boundaries of these statements to create visions and strategic directions that fit into the overall corporate direction. I think of this like nesting boxes, in which each progressively smaller box fits snugly inside the next larger one.

Working both sides of the paradox is only the beginning. A day spent on listening to resistance, attempting to create a plan for meeting the future won't absolve you from ever having to listen to resistance again, or make you immune from future problems. Life is changing too quickly for that. Even as you begin to see results, something will appear about a related industry downsizing, and that will send ripples of concern through the organization. But, by staying in conversation with your team, you have an opportunity to keep the dialogue and teamwork alive.

Rick Maurer is an advisor to organizations on ways to lead Change without Migraines?. He is author of many books on change including Why Don't You Want What I Want? and Beyond the Wall of Resistance. You can access free articles and tools at

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