This essay from Patrick Pitman originally appeared in our March 29, 2020 newsletter. Sign up?
It’s been a rough couple weeks for me and my family, recovering from flu and virus-like symptoms. Unable to get tested for COVID-19, we’ve hunkered down at home. Sleep, some work, more sleep, on the way to recovery. Gratitude for those who’ve helped us. Prayers for those who have not recovered, or not recovered yet.
Among the client matters that could not wait for my recovery have been those about layoffs.
Several times of late I’ve been on the phone or Zoom when people at one company or another have been let go. Ugh.
Being involved in hiring and training teams means I’m part of conversations when they’re disbanded or furloughed; or when an urgent plan is made to do so.
In my recent feverish state, these always uncomfortable situations felt magnified. It’s as if my senses have been amplified, not dulled, by a viral storm of infection. So the anxiousness of the layoff moments felt extra queer this time around.
Will you grant me a moment to tell you two things about layoffs that seem important after these experiences?
1. Preserve others trust in you and you’ll be fine.
What you communicate, and how you do so, will sew trust or unravel it. That trust will be the basis for whatever grows later.
But its preserving the trust itself that’s more important than the business outcome. Above all, preserve your felt sense of being trustworthy.
Am I still trusted?
We want a happy ending by all visible, outward measures: continuity, growth, profit. But the internal measure you hold yourself to will matter more than a visibly successful outcome.
Alternately, if you act in untrustworthy ways now — that will hurt more, later, than losing any company momentum you’ve been building.
Layoffs feel like a broken promise.
A leader spoke this to me:
“I really want this to be a good story some day. And I really, really don’t want layoffs to be a part of the story. I’m doing everything I can to make it NOT a part of this story.”
Of course you are.
We are creators, visionaries, story tellers, makers. We look to the future and promise it’ll be better. We want to be positive. We want to be grateful, and hopeful.
Sorry, there’s a big AND coming.
We can look at each other, nod, and affirm all of that hopefulness. And. . .
2. Make room for grieving.
This may be the hard part you want to skip. I know I’m more comfortable with looking ahead to a better time.
The urge to skip past layoff-driven anguish, especially when feeling responsible for it, can appear to offer relief. But what’s actually a deep relief, and important now, is to feel the sadness of it. Grieve with them, those let go and those who remain.
There’s a place for hope and gratitude, but honor the moment of grief as deserving of itself, for its own sake.
Make room for this now, not a later time when you’re all less busy. Recognize it as the way through trauma to a faster, more resilient recovery for your team. It’s the balm to anger. It’s an antidote to brittle positivity that masks the shame of broken promises.
Your people will trust you more for your courage to sit with the grief of the layoffs. With trust, you can rebuild anything.