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?
Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian neurologist and psychologist as well as a Holocaust survivor, wrote the following paragraph in his best selling book Man’s Search for Meaning.
“I remember one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread, which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me -the word and look which accompanied the gift.
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two-the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race”-and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.” (Frankl, 137)
As we can see, Viktor Frankl, after his captivity and abuse at the hands of the Nazis divided humanity into two distinct races of “decent” and “indecent” men.
In the same book, he goes on to describe a commander of his camp, who took pity on the prisoners, and purchased, out of his own pocket, medicines from the nearest market town. At the same time, the senior camp warden, a prisoner himself, beat the other prisoners at every opportunity. Frankl goes on to say that, this commander was rewarded for his humanity. After the war, three young Hungarian Jews hid the commander, then went to the commandant of the American forces, who were very eager to catch this commander, and stated that they would only disclose his location if it was promised no harm would come to this man. What I also think Frankl was trying to say is that “decent” people attract other “decent” people, and support them. I think the reverse may also be true – indecent people support other indecent people
I would now like to describe a real life situation that I once struggled with in my career for several years, and that experience has today helped me make connections to what I think organisations, teams and individual struggle with in day-to-day management and leadership issues and a broader connection to what Frankl may have tried to say.
Violet was my supervising manager. She was in her mid forties, smart and always elegantly dressed and came into the organization to lead the function. While Violet came in with good looking credentials and work experience that looked impressive, over a period of time, I started finding out that working with her was incredibly difficult. She had a short fuse, would often be abusive to her colleagues and always skimmed the surface of any discussion that warranted debate or exchange of ideas. As a manager it appeared like she was focused on managing her own image instead of mentoring, coaching and helping her team members to succeed. She had no qualms about being disrespectful to people in public and criticism came very easily to her. In my years of working with her I had never heard a word of appreciation from her and could never manage her unpredictable behaviour. Everyone, always, stopped short of her expectations and the best part was that she never really set any!
My years of working as an OD professional, my understanding of Neuroscience and the reflection I have had to do as a part of my work with senior executives has made me believe that the world is may not be divided into decent and indecent people as per Frankl, but into what I call SEC (secure) and INS (insecure) people. The reason I share my personal story is because Ms Violet was clearly an INS person. And, when you put an INS person in a leadership position, you automatically have an INS team and therefore an INS organization. Organization Theorists have not quite delved into a deep correlation between a leaders style and organisation culture.
So, what do I mean by INS and SEC people?
The brain has a Reflexive and a Reflective system. The Reflexive system is the automatic and spontaneous system of the brain that is typically sensory and is governed by error detection zones in the brain, such as the amygdala and the VLPFC (ventro lateral pre frontal cortex). INS people are dominantly governed by their reflexive system also called the X system. In contrast, the Reflective system of the brain is intentional, controlled and regulates responses appropriate to the environment and is governed more by the PFC (pre frontal cortex - the decision engine). SEC people are governed by the reflective system or the C system. They are calmer, easy going and show optimism and warmth since they are able to emotionally regulate their brain to handle any situation in front of them.
What may be the root cause?
Lets go back to the example of Ms Violet who I term as an INS person. She was governed largely by her X system, where her brain detected error or threat in most situations. Over a period of time, her amygdala (error detecting zone in the brain) had probably become so large that it was out to sense the smallest error as a threat and push her to go into frenzy as often times as it did. Research also says that our limbic system - the master of the X system ( which houses the error detecting zone)is actually coded in the third trimester of the foetus in the mother’s womb, causing certain “threats” to be stored there. I remember Violet once telling me a story as to how her mother was considered a pariah in the family since she came from a very different background. Perhaps some of those negative experiences her mother had passed down as code?
There is another aspect of the working of the X system and the C system that may play a part in this type of behaviour. The C system as we know is the “goldilocks” of the brain (Rock). Which means that the C system needs to have everything right to be able to function and is highly energy consuming. When someone like Violet feels incompetent in her job and knows that she actually has a larger job that she can handle, her C system overworks all the time and causing an overload, triggering her X system off more than needed. I have often noticed incompetent people(or people who are put in jobs that are not a fit for them) stress easily and the use dysfunctional behaviour to protect themselves.
How do INS leaders affect a team?
As one can imagine Violet ran her team with an absence of trust. Her team members never knew what to expect, she always said and believed that team members were not performing up to her expectations. This caused enormous tension within the team. Individuals did not feel that they could trust one another, and the team was a collection of individuals and not a team. I cant help believing that INS people rather manage their leadership teams this way so they don’t have a team force to reckon with (given the lack of competence we talked about earlier). Violet also had a very select in-group. Interestingly this in-group had INS people. The other learning I have had is the INS people are threatened by SEC people because SEC people exude confidence, are able to argue their point and essentially more competent professionals. So, INS leaders end up recruiting more INS team members.
It is a great insight on seeing a trend of how organization sub cultures are built.
How do INS leaders effect an organization?
Have you ever worked in a “fear based” organization? “Fear based” organizations have INS leaders. Because INS leaders are primarily motivated by fear, these leaders thrive on creating such a culture. For example once Violets direct reports Violet's understood that the best way to survive was to put one’s head down, not challenge and be a “yes” person because that is the behaviour that will keep one “safe” – it became the norm. So, Violet’s leadership team culture just percolated further down the organization. The few SEC leaders on Violets team were either made to leave or left on their own volition.
What can we as change agents do about it?
Books like “Built to Last” by authors Collins and Porras and “Good to Great” by Collins touched upon themes that resonate within the context of INS and SEC leaders.
In the book “Built to Last” the authors Collins and Porras researched organizations that were sustainable over a long period of time and flourished and grew because they pushed their boundaries and never believed there was a finish line. The research also showed what really kept these organizations going was the fact that they had a larger organization purpose - called a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) which believed in the greater good of mankind. Bill Gates’ purpose of having “a computer on every desk” when he started Microsoft in 1981 is an example of a company with a BHAG.
Companies with BHAG’s work beyond a goal of achieving a certain margin or revenue target and the end of a year and therefore require evolved leadership. Evolved leadership leaders and teams build cultures that foster innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Leadership of this calibre are SEC leaders.
In the book “Good to Great” Jim Collins talks about the “Level 5” leader. Collins argues that the “key ingredient that allows a company to become great is having a Level 5 leader: an executive who blends genuine personal humility with intense professional will”. A leader with humility asks him self in the mirror every morning – what could I have done better yesterday? He or she is not the kind of leader who will play the blame game when the going gets tough or shrug accountability in such a situation. Again, as we can see Level 5 leaders need to be SEC leaders.
If pushing boundaries and building organizations for tomorrow require a culture of questioning the status quo then as change agents, we need to help facilitate the creation of the breed of SEC leaders. My reflection above has shown that INS leaders not just create a hostile environment in their teams, but have the capacity of creating dysfunction across the organisation. The question then is how do we create more SEC leaders and importantly help move INS leaders to SEC leaders? How do we sensitize organisations to understanding and believing the right type of leadership that is required?
Taking the first step: Understanding one-self as an instrument of change - being a more effective executive coach
My coaching practice begins with helping leaders understanding themselves by applying the neuroscience tools I have mentioned above. How much of an INS or SEC person am I? What situations make me react as an INS person? What behaviours do I need to change when I’m being an INS person? (All of us show up INS traits at times, although we may be predominantly SEC) What about me, makes me a person who is Reflective vs Reactive? This understanding is helps leaders put together a framework for better self-reflection. I also encourage them to use an EBT (emotional brain training) Iphone application that helps them map situations in the day where they may not have used my C system and instead used their X system. This helps them become self-aware and understand the shifts they need to make. I encourage them to log each event then play it back in their mind – this helps them get mindful every time they are faced with a stressful situation.
Kalpana Sinha is a Leadership and Organisation Professional. Her blog has reflections from her work experiences of over 20 years.