We are always going through change – it’s inherent in our business and our industry. However, the changes involved in layoffs can be particularly tough on who are not getting layed off.
Even if no one in your group loses their job, you may feel impacted emotionally because you may know someone that is involved in a layoff, or you may start to wonder about what the future will bring. It’s to be expected.
Researchers in the field of organization development coined this term Survivor Syndrome.
What is it? Its a set of attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that typically occur in people that continue to have roles in an organization while others are let go due to economic or changing business needs.
In times of layoffs, organizations typically work very hard to treat released employees with respect and support as they leave the organization. This is about how to help yourself and others who stay on, deal with common feelings and stay focused on business commitments.
For a survivor, the typical attitudes are : cynical, uncaring, emotionally exhausted, detached. And the typical feelings are are anger, depression, fear, distrust, guilt, violation, de-valued.
This results in behaviors that look like
Lack of commitment
Distrustful of management
Less team focused
Focus on job instability
Every person is different, so everyone may or may not exhibit these common attitudes, feelings, and behaviors - but the do in varying degrees.
What should you do?
Do you like yourself? Can you write down a 100 things that you like about yourself? Most often people have difficulty getting to 10. Its fundamental, if you don't like yourself, and really like yourself, there is little you can offer others by way of coaching, mentoring or teaching.
In my work as an executive coach, I always spend time on understanding if the coachee likes herself/himself.
After having worked through the initial development feedback, goals and challenges, I ask them to do some homework.
1. On a scale of 1-10 how much you like yourself?
2. Break this down into Profession, Health, Finance and Relationships. How much do you like yourself in each of these areas?
3. Write down three paragraphs of instances when you really liked yourself. Example , when you gave a public performance. or when you nursed you sick parent. What exactly did you like about yourself?
Liking yourself helps others like you. You exude positive energy, are open minded and let everyone be open with you. Life doesn't feel so hard.
So, what do you need to do to really like yourself? Set a small goals and achieve them. Like exercise for 30 minutes everyday, call my mother every week or give my co workers positive feedback.
Start now and the world will feel like a very different place.
The stages of long-term memory consist of Encoding – constructing memory, Retention- storing memory and Retrieval - accessing and using the memory.
When I relate this process to building leader capability, it feels like encoding is critical step in helping leaders build capability. Encoding requires selective attention to the material, elaboration that is associating with other information and visual imagery can be used to add richness to the material to be remembered
One of the learning strategies we have used to build capability in leaders has been the concept of creating a “crucible”. A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity. For example, I coached a woman executive who was sent on an assignment to a factory in Japan where she faced both estrangement and sexism. She had to face the daunting prospect of carving out a place for herself as the only woman engineer in a plant, in a nation, where women usually serve as low-level assistants. It was a tough situation for her and she was to “sink or swim” with a belief that if she was successful she would be on on high potential list.
To relate the work on crucibles to my insights on memory, I advised that she document her learning with stories, anecdotes, pictures and critical business experiences and stand up and teach an audience of aspiring leaders. This would help her help her organisation build a process of learning and retaining knowledge and skills in a systematic way.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Anything that produces a positive response in a human being stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain. This positive feeling also creates the anticipation of pleasure the next time the stimulus is introduced, and establishes a biofeedback reward system.
Dopamine is also what makes us make us more likely to opt for instant gratification, rather than waiting for a more beneficial reward. For example indulging in the chocolate cake the day after you have resolved to go on a diet, or buying the latest I phone on day one of the release instead of waiting for prices to go down.
Low levels of dopamine are indicated with a wide variety of diseases and disorders like simple anxiety to depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Leaders are often faced with a challenge of building an engaged workforce. It is not about the Annual Review “pat on the back” – but it is about continuous reinforcement of strengths and employee contribution that helps an employee feel that someone “cares” for them and their careers. A leader, who is seen as nurturing, often goes a long way. Dopamine is a very real human need, people at the workplace need to feel that the organization is invested in them and their careers. Gallup research says “Employees who report they're not adequately recognized at work are three times more likely to say they'll quit in the next year”
The question is how do you keep dopamine levels of your employee at a level that they come into work every morning feeling excited about the next contribution they will make? One strategy that has been used in my organization is Job Sculpting. It is a very personalized way of extending your current job to have assignments and deliverables that play to ones optimal skill and challenge levels. These assignments are reviewed periodically and rewarded based on the goals achieved.
It’s therefore important that leaders continuously think of ways to keep employee dopamine levels at the optimal- including unexpected rewards (that creates a bigger dopamine rush)to build a very committed and engaged workforce.
In his book FLOW, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It is the same as the highest point on the inverted U on the over arousal curve. It’s the point that which your skills are challenged at their highest and the dopamine rush is at its highest too. Any more challenge will cause the individual to crash and burn.
In a class discussion someone brought up the example of the advertising industry and how creative people are often subjected to very tight deadlines and work days and nights at a stretch to make the client pitch. They are also known to thrive it such an environment, saying they are at their creative best under such pressure. In any other industry this may be unheard of, or not happen at such frequency. The issue here is that different people have different set points on the over arousal curve, and its possible that the advertising industry attracts people with a higher set point. Its akin to people who enjoy bungee jumping – they have a different set point of feeling thrilled than many others. These set points may differ within an industry, with an organization as well as within a function.
As talent professionals, it is important for us to understand this to be able to fine-tune a methodology to figure out where an individual’s set point lies in terms of professional challenge and skill. It would be a great way to segment employees in terms of career development and the sets of experiences they need to feel engaged and passionate about the work they do. If this is tailored to individual employees the organisation will see positive results in employee feedback relating to employee retention.
One of the critical challenges one faces during lay offs or letting people go, is dealing with the whole SARAH cycle. Shock, Anger, Resistance, Hope and Acceptance. I just had a call from an ex colleague who after a team meeting last week was called into his managers room and asked to leave. He said the conversation was barely five minutes long, with little explanation. We had a long conversation about faith in humanity and how he can learn to trust people after this incident.
In an organization that has good HR practices, it is imperative that there is a “case” that is built up for making anyone redundant. The “case” consists of feedback, rounds of counselling, putting the person on a performance improvement plan and being clear on what goals will be tracked over the next few months. This is done only to set the right expectations and to make sure that no one is taken by complete surprise. It’s a “minimize danger” strategy. Companies like these are keen to let people go the “right” way – pay fair severance, help with outplacement agencies only because they want to be known as an employer that cares. And the message clearly is one of, yes you are competent, but this is probably not the right fit. If it is a situation where the role has been made redundant then the organization makes itself responsible to find the person another role within the same organisations
Very clearly that was not the case with this colleague. Now as a result of this incident, other employees who have heard the story have their error detection sensors up – they keep feeling like they maybe let go in the same way. If companies do not make an effort to build a culture where they minimize danger and maximize reward, it will not just have impact on the talent they are able to attract and retain talent and but, to meet long-term business goals
Remember the last time you went into an Annual Performance Review Discussion and how your heart thumped loudly as you walked into it? It was your amygdala, (an almond shaped “mood” bender located in between your brains temporal lobes) which was sending signals to your cortex to ask to be fearful. Such an experience often has basis in previous experiences where you either have had a boss you have not trusted, or found the culture of the workplace being one where performance review is actually the yearly “dinging” time. It is for this very reason that managers in our organization are coached to give consistent and timely feedback throughout the year.
People are constantly exposed to stress and threat in the workplace. Think of the amygdala as one that has antennas to seek out this fear of threat. Too many emotionally challenging tasks and fear based experiences drive people to the edge until they reach a point of emotional saturation – a point where the amygdala has “high jacked” everything else in the brain. Our impulse control is regulated and controlled by a refreshed, rested, and fully functioning prefrontal cortex. If we constantly saturate the prefrontal cortex by overloading it with information, demanding constant complex decisions, and have no downtime after stressful interactions we cause this “high jack” and limit our ability to maintain impulse control and stay cool and composed.
I am working right now with a client who is clearly in an “amygdala high jack” mode. He has had a fall out with his manager and feels a severe sense of paranoia. Each of his emails read like a person under huge duress gathering evidence to absolve himself. He has not been able to sleep nights and is very emotional in his conversations. My coaching has been to try to get him to get to a point where he can refresh his PFC and start thinking of constructive ways to overcome the situation
Neuroscientists are clear that multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Although you can do a few things at the same time like walk and talk, but it is only with activities that your brain has habituated and that does not need focused time and attention. The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Although research clearly shows that multitasking reduces productivity and increases mistakes, today’s workplace praises multitasking and believes that an employee is a high performer because he or she is able to multitask.
One of the reasons business needs people to multitask is because of the pressure on resources and the expectation to get more done out of less. The other reason is the advent of office communication technology that enables one to do email, message on instant messenger, be on a web conference and text someone on the phone all at the same time. In other words the environment is pushing you to do something that the brain is not ready for.
One of my clients has just been given a larger responsibility. In addition to running a team of 400 employees across three geographies working on a software product he is now in charge of running the strategy and operations of a sales and marketing function. Two jobs that require very distinct and different set of skills. Although he is a highly capable individual and has the needed qualifications for this additional assignment his challenge clearly is getting through the day with a level of multitasking between the two roles so that he is productive, is able to take the right decisions as well as improve business performance.
Based on my understanding of multitasking, here are some of the coaching tips I had for him. The two roles are very distinct and you must have different strategies in your day to deal with them. Both require your prefrontal cortex (the executive of the brain)to be functioning at top speed from 8am to 11pm (because of the geographic spread)
- Have clear days in the week when you will spend on one business more than the other, ensure there is a rhythm in place for reviews and meetings
- Ensure you have only one Executive Assistant who will help you with both businesses, that way you outsource the time juggling part of the job to just one person.
- When you need to move from one meeting to another which is a completely different topic, ensure you have 15 minutes in between to transition. This way you can do a closure and follow up on the last meeting and a quick prep on your next meeting.
- Announce a no meeting time between 12- 1pm everyday – this is your time to think and reflect. Also announce a no meeting time between 530-830pm so that you can go home unwind, be with the family before you start connecting with other locations.
- Announce a 90 minute window once a week as an open office time – so that you continue to be connected with people and they feel you are still approachable.
- Ensure you have email time built into the calendar every day so that you are not distracted in meetings
- Use 45 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your calendar for the week and do any prep you need to. Assign the prep to people who can help you be well prepared for each meeting
- Try and sign up for a yoga instructor for an hour a day to help with mindfulness.
- Try and eat small meals every two hours to keep you blood sugar steady and fuel your brain.
The brain's default network is that part of the brain that takes over when we are not fully engaged in any activity focused on the external environment. It’s when we synthesize past observations - including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving a perspective of others.
It has been seen that people normally suppress this default system when they perform challenging tasks which involves the pre frontal cortex and also that the default network system takes over especially when one has a repetitive task at hand and. In patients with schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s is it hard for them to move back from the default system – and they often continue “day dreaming”.
One of the aspects of Leadership Development that I work on is the ability of a leader to reflect on his learning’s. It is clear from research that 70% of our learning’s come from on the job. These experiences could be either good or hard experiences. But the key is to decipher what one may have learnt from this and apply it to oneself as a leader takes on more challenging assignments.
It would be great if one could delve into the workings of the default system and train leaders to help the default system in this process of reflection, instead of a situation where the default system just throws out random thoughts from the past/future.
For one, how do we catch ourselves as we see the default system take over? Does that mean we increase the power of observation? How do we then seed a certain thought that relates to an experience we have had and are looking at patterns of learning? How do we record those patterns? Does constantly thinking of these experiences lead us somewhere? Can we then connect all of this “working” of the default system to some learning at the workplace?
Kalpana Sinha is a Leadership and Organisation Professional. Her blog has reflections from her work experiences of over 20 years.