The Art of Letting Go (of Staff)

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Making redundancies? Just add kindness.

“It’s chaos, so be kind.” Michelle McNamara, author and researcher.

I have learned that finding humour during trying times is one of the smartest things a leader can do. Comedians are great philosophers, especially when it comes to magnifying the knocks of creativity and vulnerability, rejection and resilience. Founders and entrepreneurs can relate to these stories all too well…. A few weeks ago, I found myself in search of comedic relief. The leadership at the company I work for was in the process of making some difficult staff decisions. Our business model had changed and we were working through a round of redundancies, something this organisation had never gone through.

I needed a jolt of joy. Instead, I found Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation on Netflix.

Patton’s late wife, Michelle McNamara, was a cold case researcher and novelist – she dealt with death, gore and the worst of humanity on a daily basis. She had passed away a year earlier, quietly in her sleep, leaving her adoring husband, Patton, in a deepening wallow. True to self, Patton turned to comedy to work through his grief.

Annihilation is more than a comedy special. It’s an homage to Michelle, who worked tirelessly to bring comfort and solace to families who have gone through deep, untimely loss. She dealt with murders, often decades old, relentlessly exploring hypotheses that were long-abandoned by detectives. In the special, Patton recounts the long nights of research and writing, and the long discussions they would have about life and meaning. He held steadfastly to the idea that the world has meaning, a purpose for existing. Michelle, battle-scarred from her work, would counter, “It’s chaos, so be kind.”

Prepare to be kind

As I heard those words come out of Patton’s mouth, dripping with fresh grief, I felt something switch in my mind. I had been trying to laboriously organise a work problem into to-do lists and compliance tasks, when I should have been looking at it from a human lens. “We are about to go through some loss and grief,” I thought to myself. “Let’s prepare to be kind.”

So with my newfound approach, I found a new process to support the team through this change. Instead of focusing on what we had to do, I decided to focus on what is the kindest thing to do? Without hesitating, the rest of the leadership team got on board.

I’m not going to lie to you – there is no easy way to go through redundancies at any organisation. There is no amount of prep that will take away any of the pain, disappointment, fear or grief that you will cause your team. However, choosing to see this process from a human-centric place frees you up to embrace all the flaws as features. I am proud to say that we were able to work through this and even got emails and calls from most of the people affected, thanking us for the generosity they received through the process. It wasn’t easy, but it can be done.

Here are some lessons we learned from these trying times.

1. Don’t put it off

As leaders, our job is to put the team first. We can often confuse this with putting off painful events when, in fact, it’s the opposite. Once a difficult decision makes itself evident, embrace the moment and use the time to prepare. Leave yourself enough runway to put everything you need in place, including blocking out time for the individual meetings to happen and to go through the steps suggested below. The last thing you want to do is rush through a difficult process.

2. Set time aside

I have worked in companies where leadership teams hope redundancies will go unnoticed. People get tapped on the shoulder and disappear into a meeting room, never to be seen again. This is about the worst thing you can do if you want to avoid total chaos. It is very important that the affected people be told first, in private, and in a manner designed to put their feelings first. However, it is even more important that you set time aside for the team to come together and live through the experience as a unit. Block a team meeting ahead of time immediately after the affected people are told, and make a team announcement.

3. Complete the story

As humans, we are wired for story. Our brain yearns to have narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end. Short of that, we naturally tend to fill in the blanks. During times of adversity, we tend to fill in the blanks from a place of fear, therefore creating what we know as “conspiracy theories.” If you are not prepared to tell your team the full story, they will fill in the blanks themselves and their versions will be far worse than any truth you tell them. To avoid this, put everything in writing before you make any announcements. Something we found incredibly useful was making a list of the possible questions we could be asked, such as “Why is this happening?”; “Will there be more redundancies?”; “How were the roles picked?”; “Am I next?”; “Are we in trouble?”; “When do we start hiring again?”; “Where can I give feedback on these changes?” The leadership then sat down and answered all of them. We then collated them into a narrative FAQ format, printed them out and gave them out during the announcement.

This works three ways. Firstly, it allows you to control the story as a leader. Second, you don’t have to think about answers on the fly. You will inevitably get asked questions during the team announcement. By giving yourself time to anticipate questions and come up with the answers ahead of the event, you are able to provide more complete and thoughtful answers. Third, it gives people the chance to metabolise changes at their own pace. This is particularly generous for the more shy, thoughtful members of your team whom might not want to bring up difficult questions during a team meeting. Giving them written materials to take home will allow them time to process all of this and think of useful feedback to give you.

4. Think about the next chapter

One of the more positive things we did during this process was to sit down and write everyone recommendation letters and prepare LinkedIn endorsements ahead of time. Since none of the redundancies are not due to performance, this did not prove to be an onerous task. Have the letters ready to go with the paperwork pack you provide on the day. If you want to be extra fancy about it, put up the LinkedIn endorsements once the announcements are made.

5. Time to heal

Now that you have been generous with the departing team members and have been open and transparent with your team, it is imperative that you allow the team time and space to heal. My advice is to set aside a block of time for people to just spend time together – ideally the day after this all happens – for them to have coffees, ask for advice, gather their thoughts or just enjoy each other’s company. Their heads won’t be in it, so the work won’t suffer all that much.

Every team is different, so what is kind for us may not be kind for yours. However, I have found that transparency, ownership and time make for the best results, no matter what. But when in doubt, remember: “It’s chaos, so be kind.” That will get you out of most binds in one piece.

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