Dealing with Downsizing

questions typewriterDear Ellen,

What are your suggestions for helping my employees deal with downsizing? My team of 10 suddenly became a team of 8 during a time of significant change. How can I rally the troops, rebuild morale and strengthen my team?




Dear VW,

This is a great question and it's a situation that I see a lot in both my executive coaching and healthcare leadership development practice.

It's important to realize that quite a few things are going on at the same time.

  • Team members who are left after the downsizing are dealing with "survivor guilt." They are nervous about what else might be changing – maybe wondering if they're next? – and are feeling they have to carry the weight to make up for those who left.
  • You yourself might feel challenged and not know all the answers. This can cause you to feel anxious, and that anxiety could be unconsciously transmitted to your team.
  • Interpersonal conflict may arise and it may be difficult to interpret the behaviour of your staff, without understanding the motivation behind this behaviour.

It is very easy for things to get misinterpreted at this point, so effective communication is key.

Action Steps

Here are few things to try as you lead your team through this period of change.

  1. Be self-aware. Recognize your own feelings about these major changes. Acknowledge them, recognize your natural tendency to deal with them, and choose how you want to show up as a leader. Decide what part of your feelings you want to share with your staff. Be authentic.
  2. Give space for your staff to express their thoughts and feelings. Some might want to move into action, while others need time to digest and analyze. Ensure, however, that you provide a limited time for this. It's important that people know that the team needs to eventually move forward.
  3. Share information openly. Nothing feeds worry and rumour more than people feeling they are out of the loop. Tell people what you know. Be honest if you don't have all the details or know all the answers.
  4. Ask your team "What do you need to move forward?" It's a simple question, but a powerful one. They know what they need. Trust that they will tell you. Leave lots of space for them to answer.
  5. Ask your team for improvement suggestions. You won't know all the answers, but you might be surprised at what your staff are able to contribute. Truly listen to their ideas. When asked what activities can be cut or which changes they think are needed on the front line, you can be sure that those closest to the action can tell what works and what doesn't. Express your appreciation for their honesty.
  6. Work with a transition team to implement suggestions. If you don't have a transition team, pick 3 staff from different areas who can provide you with different perspectives as you work through the changes. People are more engaged and motivated when they have a say in how they do their work.
  7. Be supportive and coach through change rather than tell through change.
  8. Align your team on the importance of their shared, larger purpose. It is also the opportunity to align the work to people's strengths. 

Managing people, managing change

Handling downsizing is a challenging task that unfortunately faces many healthcare leaders today. In essence, when you are dealing with a downsizing situation, you are managing change. The good news is that you don't have to do it all on your own.

Talk to your team. Recognize that change like this is upsetting and get their feedback on how best to move forward. Everyone handles bad news differently. Some may be angry. Some may want more information. Give them the tools, support and space they need to face an uncertain future with confidence and dignity.

Consider using the Strength Deployment Inventory® tool to uncover the core motivations of your staff and yourself. It's great tool to understand your team when things are going well and can be used to minimize conflict as it sheds light on the "why" of other people's behaviours allowing all parties to understand where their colleagues are coming from. 

Good luck! And remember: downsizing can be disruptive, but it can also be an opportunity to strengthen the team, engage people in thinking creatively, make positive changes, and see how leadership within the team shows up.



The Strength Deployment Inventory®
The Rising Leaders Program

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