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Helping teams manage organizational change: Morale issues

If you're still employed after a company layoff, you may be facing a variety of challenges. You're probably coping with conflicting emotions ranging from relief to grief while dealing with an increased workload and changing expectations. Change at scale is hard and layoffs can affect trust, communication and collaboration, your team's purpose and goals, along with all the other myriad things that influence your ability to deliver valuable outcomes. This is the first of a series of posts that provides insight and guidance on some of the most common areas affected by organizational change. Today's topic: morale issues.


Managing organizational change and low morale


Managing organizational change requires strong empathetic leadership, effective communication, and a focus on supporting and motivating folks through what can be a challenging transition. When a significant portion of a workforce is let go, it can create a ripple effect of uncertainty, anxiety, and low morale among those who remain, along with feelings of insecurity, survivor guilt, and anxiety. Layoffs can also erode trust between employees and management, with employees questioning the stability of their jobs and the transparency of organizational decisions.


Feelings of heightened anxiety and stress about job security and increased or uncertain workloads combined with low morale can lead to decreased engagement and productivity levels. People may feel a lack of initiative or enthusiasm about their work and may even display negative attitudes, cynicism, or resistance to change. Feelings of disengagement can lead to a rise in absenteeism and attrition. All of this can have a pervasive, negative impact on how a team works together. If you fall into the trap of skipping or rushing the process of addressing people's feelings and try to jump right into "getting back to work", you're likely to end up with a disengaged, underperforming workforce.


An aerial view of a winding road, with the words "If you skip the process of addressing people's feelings, you're likely to end up with a disengaged underperforming workforce."

One framework to use to better understand what's going on is Maslow's hierarchy. According to this theory, human beings have five categories of needs. From the lowest to the highest they are physiological, safety and security, social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. This is visualized as a pyramid with the lower needs in the hierarchy taking precedence, e.g. a serious disruption to lower needs can negatively impact a person's ability to invest in or focus on their higher needs until a baseline requirement is met. For example, worrying that your job might be next on the chopping block aligns to Maslow's physiological and safety layers, affecting your ability to pay your rent/mortgage, bills, and feed yourself and your family. Anxiety about the importance (perceived or actual) of your contributions and/or the viability of your team align to Maslow's social and esteem layers, affecting your connections to a team and community, as well as your self-worth.


So, what can be done?


First, you can foster a culture of transparency by providing clear, honest communication about the reasons for the layoffs, the future direction of the organization, and how remaining employees will be supported. Make space for your teams to speak up about their concerns, questions, and feelings. Use active listening, curious open ended clarifying questions, and take notes based on what folks share with you. Mirror back what you're hearing: "I'm hearing you say...", "I think I understand your concern is...", and "Am I correct that you would like to understand...". By using their own words for any emotions they're feeling, you make sure they feel heard. By paraphrasing the sentiment or questions around those emotions, you can ensure you understand what they are telling you.


As managers, you may have talking points provided by your leadership to help you navigate these conversations. It's important to remember that this is a framework to help you communicate a consistent message, but you have leeway to show up authentically, providing guidance and reassurance.


Lead by example in maintaining a positive and resilient attitude, being careful to stay honest and realistic, because toxic positivity is just as destructive as negativity. You may not be able to address everything that comes up, so acknowledge either when you don't have the answers or know what the path forward looks like yet, commit to elevating their concerns and questions, and schedule time for a follow up conversation. Amplify your teams' feedback with your leadership and get clarity about the areas where you have autonomy to address things directly for your team and where things are outside of your zone of control.


For those areas within your control, involve your team in decision-making processes and solicit their input on ways to improve morale and team dynamics moving forward. Help them rediscover meaning and purpose by connecting their work with the organization's mission and values. Sometimes a company's values may feel diluted in the aftermath of layoffs, so help them see where they are directly or indirectly impacting customers in positive ways.


Longer term, prioritize your teams' well-being by promoting work-life balance, encouraging breaks and time off, and providing resources for stress management and mental health support. Recognize their efforts, celebrate their contributions and wins, and find ways to reward them, whether through verbal praise, bonuses, or other forms of recognition. Invest in them through training, skill-building, and career advancement to show you are committed to their growth and success.


By addressing morale issues head-on and implementing proactive solutions, managers can not only weather the storm of layoffs but help their teams emerge stronger and more resilient in the long run.


As a leadership coach, I partner with managers and leaders to navigate these challenges, develop effective strategies, and foster a positive work environment amidst organizational changes. Reach out today for a complimentary consultation to learn more.





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