Reflective Leadership in the Age of Layoffs

Most managers I know do not feel they’ve actually been given much guidance about how to proceed with cost cutting and, particularly, layoffs. As the first line of a recent Harvard Business Review article asks,“Why aren’t layoffs taught as a subject at business school?” I assume the reason is that the subject is both very complex and comes far too close to what it really means to lead, touching that sensitive cross-over point between personal values and professional conduct, a place where theory definitely has its limits.

We are so conditioned now around the word itself: layoffs. It induces deep anxiety. A manager I know compares the impact of the word to a Ginger cartoon (shown below) by the famous cartoonist, Gary Larson. No matter what other words are used, he told me, we only hear the word “layoff” the way the dog only hears its own name. There is some truth in this, I believe — although I’m not sure I like the comparison of dogs and employees.

Unfortunately, the HBR article, called “The Layoff,” does not offer much real guidance about how to approach downsizing. While well-written, I found it to be more about what not to do than how to proceed. In fact, the article confirmed for me the narrowness of the corporate mindset attempting to balance the desires of shareholders against the needs of employees. The article might have been intended as mostly a foil for discussion and to get people thinking, but I’m not sure it provided as great a service to readers as is needed these days.

The most glaring failure in the story, in addition to the fact that the leaders all seemed pretty much adrift and self-enclosed, is their push to simply get together in a room, have some hurried discussion, and then decide what needs to happen. The role of reflection seemed to be bypassed in this rush to create the right strategy — and then, ipso facto, to know what to do. Surely, when the financial heat is turned up, there’s no time to waste, but this is also a time when alignment with real brand values — a topic that requires reflective leadership as a team and as individuals — is likely to be the most reliable long-term guide. Understanding and applying these values demands decisiveness founded on thorough and creative consideration, not some three hour “tall grass” meeting where competing self-interests have a field day, followed up by a briefing and hand-out from Human Resources.

It’s as if no one wants to ask the telling question, “Wait a minute, what was this place supposed to be about, anyway?” That “wait a minute” comment might be followed by any number of statements that come directly from the stated core values of the enterprise (perhaps even posted in the room):

“Wait a minute, what about this word, integrity?”
“Wait a minute, what about this word, respect?”
“Wait a minute, what about these words, extraordinary service?

Under stress, leaders can all too easily forget that creating a particular external brand presence with customers does not happen over time unless the brand is also lived internally with employees. Under the stresses and pressures of recessionary times, the first victim may be these stated values of the enterprise — as if when the money’s not there all bets are off. But this, of course, may turn out to be the biggest cost of all. People will recall for years how critical moments in the life of an enterprise are handled. They notice and remember discrepancies from the intended culture and brand promise they’ve been asked personally to fulfill. If “Integrity” is the value and it means “customers count on us to do the right thing.” Then it also means — if you want the brand to mean anything at all — that “employees count on us to do the right thing.” And also, “People count on me to do the right thing.”

In this way, I take brand to be a variety of things: a certain reputation, a promise, a practice, a value proposition, an identity and a market differentiator. And by these things, it becomes a powerful vision and ideal of organizational and personal alignment. Brand is the living energy of a company. And it must be lived. If it is not, it’s a sham. It is a betrayal. And every time a customer, or supplier, or employee discovers another discrepancy between what is said versus what is done, that brand diminishes in strength.

There is no beautiful way to do reductions and layoffs. But pain can be reduced significantly if the process is guided by values greater than the dollars that must be saved. I am not suggesting that the need to cut costs should be avoided; I’m saying the “what” and the “how” should be guided by how the enterprise has already defined itself. Either the values it says it lives by are important or they are not. One thing that I am certain about, given my line of work, is that most of us contain a highly sensitive wire about others’ hypocrisy. As a consequence, we keep looking for advice about how reductions can be conducted without setting off the wire. Sometimes that takes on the feel of a rote formula:

  • Engage everybody in helping find solutions
  • Don’t be uncreative — think about alternatives in terms of pay reductions, job shifts, etc.
  • Have clear targets for how much reduction by when
  • Give people warning, but not too much
  • Don’t just cut from the bottom
  • Don’t expect everyone else but top management to make sacrifices
  • Don’t make cuts across the board
  • Don’t stretch them out — let people know when they start and stop
  • Make provisions to support the “survivors”

    And while these are all good ideas, what they do if applied in isolation from stated corporate values and the brand promise is simply become a checklist. And the worst part of this checklist is that it both preserves the fantasy that somehow layoffs are in some class of their own — and the ideas become arguable in terms of expediency. Do we really have to do it this way?

    I say the conversation needs to be different. When applied to hard times in an organization, what do these values mean? If layoffs are necessary, what does integrity look like? What does respect? What does extraordinary service? That the “customers” of the process are the employees who have made the brand what it is, should heighten not lessen the desire to act congruently, and in alignment with what the organization says it is. In fact, I’d say that it is precisely going through the hard times that forges the true lived meaning of these values. Moreover, if you attend to the values, won’t you get to all of the ideas on the checklist anyway? — except it has a link now to who and what you are and probably has a whole lot more flesh on the bones.

    Of course, discussing values sometimes has its risks. To do so highlights whether these values apply to the conduct of the people — typically executives — who are making the decisions. Indeed, how are they treating each other and the rest of the enterprise? Are they living their values, thinking on behalf of the whole organization, how the work and possibly the identity of the enterprise are changing, or are they operating according to a default political culture of self-protection and competition? And how has that culture been translated to the managers who work for these executives? I began this article by noting that many managers do not actually know what to do and how to do it. They need their executives to provide guidance without micro-management. They need models of how to live the brand and to be mentored through a process that includes such things as:

    • Identifying how specific work is affected by the recession.
    • Translating changes in the work to a plan for human impacts that is fair and mirrors the values of the enterprise.
    • Coordinating action and communication with other managers and with employees in order to reduce tension and ambiguity.
    • Handling all manner of sticky situations that have to do with choices of when and how to approach people.

    The need for vertical collaboration may never be higher.

    And beyond all of these things, there is a person, you for example, who also needs to look carefully at your own values and how well they match up with the stated brand and actual behavior of your organization. Your own credibility — with others, with yourself — is at stake. A reflective leader is a witness to what is going on in the environment and also what is going on within the self. For example, a new manager I know confessed he was struggling with the apparent direction he was receiving to get rid of a trouble-some employee with a negative attitude under the guise that the function was no longer needed. As tempting as that opportunity was, it begged the question of his own cowardice in dealing in an upfront way with the employee — and with the boss exerting the pressure.

    In troubled times, reflective leaders step back to witness…and to learn. Sometimes there is no advice nor anyone available to help make critical decisions. Sometimes the stress is very high. Under such conditions, it is wise to know how your own shadow side works, what you may do inadvertently or unconsciously. There are managers, for example, who subliminally express their need for power and control by working people harder who are scared about losing their jobs. There are managers who are considering savings by terminating the least assertive individuals (think back room technician for whom English is a second language). In times like these it is best to take some time to get square with yourself, to envision how you want to live the brand, what your greatest gift is and your most value-added, courageous contribution. This isn’t a time for blindly keeping your head down; your brain and your heart are needed. This is about careful consideration and it is also about choice, finding your own voice, being real, connecting, and above all, leading from within.

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    13 Comments

    • Dan:

      This was the best blog post I have read all year. You packed so much into this.

      I would make it required reading for leaders and anyone who is writing about branding.

      There is so much work on personal leadership branding and some of it comes off like cereal box packaging — yet you put true branding and leadership to the test through layoffs, integrity, witnessing, during tough times.

      David

    • David

      Thank you for your powerful encouragement. I am very grateful for your comments and deeply inspired by your own work to foster engagement.

      Alan

      My appreciation to you for stopping by. Your own site exemplifies a thoughtfulness that must be present if we are to genuinely address the stresses of our country’s current situation. I am so respectful of the power of conscious market positioning and marketing to drive positive culture change within our organizations. There is so much untapped potential. Thanks for your leadership.

      Best to you.

    • As David has said Dan, what a feast for better leadership thought your posting is; thank you for your ever-articulate writing.

      Earlier this morning I read about furloughs, the voluntary taking of more unpaid time off thought to be the precursor to layoffs, and there are problems there as well, such as the fear that you may be calling attention to if you are needed in that workplace at all. This all brings me back to how much we in business underestimate the ‘net worth and asset’ of good health in our organizational culture. It’s the intangible that is crystal clear when it is missing. Consistently strong value-alignment in workplace cultures will result in the way all problem-solving is approached and handled, whether that problem is the unforeseen need for layoffs or something else. Strong cultural values make managerial behaviors predictable for all stakeholders, and more easily understood when they must be applied in these crucible times (as in a recession).

      I like your title of “reflective leadership” very much, and I ache for more of self-leadership as a human behavior versus as the org chart leadership title or role and pressure-point. As I mentioned to you earlier (on Twitter), your post sends me on various tangents, and they all connect to this notion of a healthy culture for me. As one example, the financial literacy within the business plan versus business model competency within a culture, and the degree to which employees work “on” a business as full partners versus swallowed up “in” the day to day operations. Today, ignorance is not bliss: We are all learning anew, or sadly, for the first time for some, how much the business of our economy affects the ‘business of life.’

    • “It’s the intangible that is crystal clear when it is missing.”

      Rosa, what a beautiful line. To me, what is held within it are any number of illusory battles — between “enterprise” and “community,” for example; or between concrete outcomes and inspiring visions, apparent logic and deeply felt values; “economy,” as you say, and “life.”

      It reminds me of the days when I was on the road doing many “Driving Fear Out of the Workplace” speeches. Predictably somebody would ask me to prove the worth of this work. “So if we drive out half the fear,” a questioner might ask, “can you show that it has a measurable impact on the bottom line? How much would that be exactly, say for getting rid of half the fear?”

      It began to feel like a trick question (though for some it was not that at all) and I learned to ask, “Who do you need these numbers for?” Invariably, it was not the questioner, but someone else, typically higher in the organization, a boss, the CEO — always someone else, “not me.” Such destructive conditioning.

      We are not dealing with our own divided selves.

      We all have to learn to ask ourselves (not somebody else), “So what is this ‘good health of the organization’ that Rosa Say is talking about?” And “What can I do to help?” I think if we did this as a practice we would become stronger at pointing out the things that need to be dealt with, and also stronger at listening carefully when it is clear the problems are in part our own creation. We would get stronger because we would be learning to take care of our organizations — in fact — as the gardens they truly are.

      The Garden

      The wind, one brilliant day
      Called to my soul with the odor of jasmine.
      And the wind said,
      In return for the odor of my jasmine
      I’d like the odor of your roses.

      I said,
      I have no roses.
      All the flowers in my garden are dead.

      And the wind said
      Well then,
      I’ll take the withered petals and yellow leaves.
      And the wind left.

      I wept,
      And I said to myself,
      What have you done with the garden that was
      Entrusted to you.

      — Antonio Machado, trans. Robert Bly

    • Thank you for responding so generously Dan.
      Here is a rose for your garden (though I know your own never withers).

    • Indeed, that is a wonderful rose!

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    • What a powerful post again and such a strong link between you and Rosa. I do hope the Parkour Leadership Group takes form in the future.

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