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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dealing with the aftershocks – Motivating staff and management

This article was first published in Accountancy Plus, The Official Journal of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Ireland, Issue 4, Dec 2009

In the business world there is nothing more certain than change and how we manage that change and the emotional fallout and aftershock of that change is critical in securing a positive outcome.
The story of redundancies, pay freezes, cutbacks and downsizing is all around us.  As an individual it is unlikely that you have been left untouched by the impacts of these business realities; either directly or indirectly.  If your organisation is one that hasn’t been affected in some way then you are certainly in the minority.  For everyone else it is a rollercoaster of emotions and uncertainty.  Trust becomes a major issue.  Loyalty is seriously threatened and the status quo undergoes a significant shift.   How an organisation manages the change process, both before and after, will have a profound effect on its ability to capitalise on that change.
Even in boom times two of the most important aspects of good employee relations are trust and communications.  Pretty much every employee survey and cultural audit will seek to measure these two factors.  Where there are industrial relations issues trust and communications are typically a core part of the problem and the solution.  There should be no surprises then that these two elements are a critical consideration in managing change and its aftermath.

The impact

All humans react to change, some more negatively than others.  These reactions are very often closely aligned to those of bereavement, so for managers and business owners recognising the stages and having a plan or strategy for dealing with them is vitally important.
These stages typically include:

  • Shock and confusion:  This can’t be happening...why is it happening...what’s happening?
  • Denial:  This is not happening...they will never go through with it...the union will stop them.
  • Anxiety and fear:  How will I cope... how is it going to affect me... will I be next?
  • Blame, mistrust and hostility:  It is all their fault...if they did it once they will do it again...they don’t know what they are doing...I am not playing along with them
  • Sadness, envy and stress:  I miss my friends / colleagues...I wish I had got that fat redundancy cheque...they are going to expect me to do more work and I can’t cope...what if I am next?

Results of a recent CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) survey of UK businesses involving 3000 employees indicate a significant impact on morale (70% felt that morale had been damaged by redundancy).  81 % expressed dissatisfaction with management saying that senior managers needed to restore or improve trust in their leadership with 22% being so unhappy with how the redundancy was managed they intend to look for new jobs once the labour market improves.  According to Ben Willmott, CIPD senior adviser, public policy, what he described as this “fundamental lack of trust in senior managers” could be largely attributed to “the lack of meaningful consultation and effective communications during major change”.[1]

In redundancy situations, there is also a danger of focusing solely on those leaving the employment with little or no recognition that it is important to pay attention to those left behind to ensure continued productivity and a positive culture.  The concept of “survivor syndrome” has been widely commented on by HR and management experts and is a recognised term for the reactions and attitudes displayed by those remaining in an employment after redundancies.

The symptoms of “survivor syndrome” mirror those reactions to change or stages described above: shock and confusion, anxiety fear and uncertainly, mistrust and hostility, sadness, envy and stress.  Survivors can also feel relief (that they still have a job), guilt (that they got to keep their jobs while friends and colleagues did not), anger (at how those people were treated), neglected (when the primary focus has been on leavers) and resentment (at being asked to do more and more work).

At the CIPD’s Annual Employment Law Conference in Dublin earlier this year psychologist John Loughrane talked about research into “redundancy survivors” which suggests that these people are more prone to ill-health and anxiety than those in secure employment and display signs of guilt, reduced self esteem and their productivity and sense of involvement decreases.
In the aftermath of any “negative” change then, particularly redundancy, employees need motivation, inspirational leadership and assurance that their job is secure.

10 step Survivor strategy

Simply being aware of what is likely to occur in the aftermath of significant “negative” change will not be enough to see your organisation through.  It is important in managing any change process that you have a clear strategy for managing the before and after.  This is particularly true of redundancy situations although the key elements will be the same regardless.  So what can your organisation do to motivate staff (and managers), secure their continued engagement and minimise their stress?
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate!  Be honest about what is happening and don’t make promises about the future that you may not be able to keep.  Treat you managers and staff as responsible adults – don’t try to hide bad news from them as it will just undermine your credibility
  2. Be visible and accessible.  Now is not the time for extended business trips or working from home.  You and your managers need to be on-site, working alongside your staff, willing and able to answer their questions.
  3. Put yourself in their shoes – consider how they are feeling and their needs.  Remember the stages / reactions we talked about earlier.  Show empathy and understanding.  Listen openly to their fears and concerns.
  4. Lead.  Give clear direction and reinforce the sense of “common goal” and working together. Clarify any new roles and responsibilities. Be positive in your language and outlook.  Instil hope.
  5. Lay your cards on the table and ask for their help.  Engage with staff in developing an action plan for moving forward.  The need to feel that their opinions are valued.
  6. Explain your reasoning for your actions to date and make it clear that you are being proactive in addressing upcoming challenges.
  7. Keep your managers fully informed of developments so they can talk to their teams.  Train and support them so they are able to deal with traumatic change and the issues arising.  Recognise the vital role they play and make sure they are equipped with the necessary people management skills.
  8. Rebuild your team.  Remember that team dynamics have changed and that new teams will need to work together.  Now more than ever reward and recognition are vital.  Celebrate your successes and encourage social interaction and team-building activities.
  9. Manage workloads and performance.  There is a danger of overloading remaining staff and managers.  Instead look carefully and processes and seek opportunities for streamlining.  Minimise record keeping.
  10. Support your employees – provide training (skills training for any new tasks and responsibilities, time management etc), consider stress management courses and Employee Assistance Programmes.


Change, poorly managed, can be catastrophic.  Managers and leaders have the responsibility to help their staff to understand the commercial realities facing the organisation.  They must also reignite their commitment, motivation and morale.  Employers will need to work hard to rebuild trust and raise morale and to maintain it through the difficult times ahead.  They will need to demonstrate empathy and understanding, excellent listening and coaching skills. And they need to communicate!!
The costs of ignoring the impacts of “negative” change can be crippling.  Absence cover and recruitment costs are significant and time-consuming.  Reduced productivity and quality will wipe out any financial benefits derived from the cost-cutting measures.  And risking the loss of key employees (through dissatisfaction and disgruntlement) in an already reduced workforce could be devastating for the business.
In the current economic climate we all understand that change can be reactionary.  This does not mean that there shouldn’t be a clear plan to manage the process and a defined strategy for handling the aftermath.  If you, and your organisation, are serious about survival this is the only way forward.  And don’t forget to keep your finger on the pulse...knowing what your employees are feeling and thinking is key to a positive outcome!

Jackie Prendergast runs her own HR & Management Consultancy – Consulting Excellence, providing a full range of HR supports and services to organisations, particularly within the SME sector.  She also serves as a business mentor with Dublin City Enterprise Board.  To discuss any of the issue raised in this article or for information about how Consulting Excellence can help you or your clients please contact Jackie on 01-4652391 or email: jackie@consultingexcellence.ie
You can also follow Jackie on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JaciPrendergast

[1] “Survivor syndrome” hits UK workforce morale, Claire Churchyard, People Management, August 2009

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