Leading After Layoffs

March 4, 2009
How to keep employees engaged

According to a study in 2007 by the Manufacturing Performance Institute, over 70% of the 984 manufacturers surveyed expected their revenues to increase. What a difference two years can make! Today, manufacturers are one of the leading industries dealing with managing labor costs in an economy experiencing headwinds that most of us have never seen before. With health care and retirement benefit costs increasing, consumer and business demands for products decreasing, and the challenge of gaining credit and raising capital, layoffs have become the best viable business option for many manufacturers.

If you are a manufacturer who has experienced a layoff, you are now left with a group of employees who miss the "good old days" and are afraid of the future -- afraid that their position may be eliminated; afraid their workload will increase; afraid they will lose benefits; and afraid they will be lonely since they have lost friends in the layoff.

As a leader in the organization, you may share some of the same fears your employees do. Now is the time to focus on what you can do, not on what has been lost. The layoff is behind you. You are now faced with a tremendous opportunity. The opportunity to engage the workforce you have left. By seizing this opportunity you will be positioning your team and your organization for success. By ignoring this opportunity, you will be left with a discouraged, disgruntled workforce more concerned about their own personal survival than the organization's success. The following six tips will help you use your leadership position to keep your manufacturing team engaged 100% of the time:

1. Sell People on the Problems, Not the Solutions
Many times, people feel that since the layoff has been made, everything should now be OK. Nothing could be further from the truth. We will experience a ton of problems moving forward. Now more than ever, we need to be focused on programs like Lean or Kaizen where every employee can be focused on contributing to cutting costs. Many people believe we should view 2009 as even more challenging than 2008. Tough times are ahead and we need the help of every employee.

2. Have a Compelling Positive Vision of the FutureAlthough there are going to be significant problems, it is important for leadership to have a compelling positive vision of the future. To be able to tell people the organization is going to experience serious challenges moving forward is the honest thing to communicate. This communication needs to be backed up with a positive vision of the future. The message could be something like this, "Although we are going to be in the middle of this economic downturn moving forward and we had to lay off part of our workforce, if any team can survive and thrive, exiting the recession even stronger than we entered, we believe the team we have today will get the job done!"

3. Focus on Hard Tangible Results.
Although people feel depressed in a down economy, focus on managing the hard results that can be measured. Measure every cost and how it contributes to the overall profitability of your company. Show the numbers to all your employees. If everyone is focused on achieving the best possible results and accomplishing their goals, there is less time for people to sit around complaining about the bad economy. People who have time to complain, are not focused on results and do not have enough work to do. When results improve, and people know that their efforts contributed to the results, most people feel better.

4. Fast Change is Better than Slow Change
When it comes to change, it is important for leaders to remember, fast change is easier for employees to deal with than slow change. If you need to make a layoff, make it deep enough to get the job done. Some companies are having layoffs on a weekly basis. This on-going, slow change is deadly to morale. It is what we call the torture drip of change.

5. Clarify New Roles and Responsibilities
When things get tough, the lines become blurry. Positions may have been eliminated and the work will need to be absorbed by someone else. When people leave, it is important for everyone to know, who will be responsible so customers do not experience the negative impact of an organization's downsizing.

6. Remember, there is no Such Thing as Organizational Change
The only changes that take place in organizations are personal change. As each individual personally changes, they empower the organization to change. Encourage employees to think, "I can learn, I can change and I can do it really quickly." To complain about having to do more with less is a waste of time. Everyone in the whole world is being asked to do more with less. Employees with the ability to adapt, be flexible and quickly outlearn their competitors, are the ones who will be guaranteed lifetime employment.

Peter Barron Stark and co-author of ENGAGED! and Jane Flaherty lead the Peter Barron Stark Companies, a management consulting firm which specializes in working with organizations who want to build cultures where employees love to come to work and customers love to do business.

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