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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Here We Go Again: Leading Through Layoffs


What can leaders do in the face of layoffs, with more anticipated?

It’s a story we are familiar with now. Pandemic life meant depending upon technology more than ever. Pandemic stimulus relief money enabled tech companies to raise capital and invest in growth. They went on a hiring spree with jobs to fill. Some say they over hired. Then, the trend sharply reversed in 2022. Facing a downturn in the economy and a slowdown in growth, tech companies began cutting employees. At the same time, there’s been a reset everywhere, with the rapid expansion of AI. Industry leaders say they are “right-sizing” by laying off staff to get leaner, be more efficient.  Some say there’s a “herding effect”, firms are downsizing so others are “copycats” and following suit – because they can get away with it. 

Regardless, layoffs affect everyone – those who lose their jobs, those left behind and the leaders who terminate positions, often under pressure of forces beyond their control. 

Being the one who was laid off can feel like a sucker punch. Layoffs may cause feelings of shame or failure that impacts how you feel about yourself, your close relationships and your family for a long time. There is shock, grief, fear for the future, worry, anger.  What now?

Those left behind may be experiencing a confusing mix of both survivor’s guilt and resentment, especially if you’ve lost a close colleague to a layoff. You not only miss them, but you also wonder if it should have been you. Plus, you are now shouldering more responsibilities; your team is absorbing more work. You get thrown off balance.  You may experience diminished self-esteem, fear and anxiety about your own future. Will you be next? Is your job safe? 

Then, there is the leader who must face the difficult prospect of letting someone go – often decided by circumstances outside of their control (a change in budget, different priorities, market changes, stockholders). How to get the work done now, with fewer people, lower team morale, the fear and distrust in the faces of team members? 

The bottom line is transitions are difficult, but are to be expected in uncertain, turbulent times. So, what can leaders do in the face of layoffs, with more anticipated?

Really listen and stay connected. “Seek first to understand and then to be understood,” Stephen Covey wrote in in his seminal book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Leaders get out of the way and focus their attention on the people around them – especially during challenging times. They seek to understand the perspectives, concerns and fears of their team members. This isn’t a passive state. People can tell when you’re listening fully and without judgment, just as they can tell when you’re tuned out or waiting for them to finish so you can chime in. If you’re not really paying attention or are silently judging them, they won’t open up to you in the future. 

Cultivate empathy for the people you work with. As author Sherrie Campbell explains, “When empathy is present, defensiveness decreases and something positive replaces it. Empathy opens doors and removes confusion. It softens the minds and hearts of others. When people are open, this is exactly when an empathetic leader can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and long-term success.” Take time to sit down and engage with your team members in conversations in the midst of layoffs – don’t avoid them. Ask questions like, “What’s your biggest worry right now?” “How can I help?” These questions invite sharing and opening, and the answers will usually lead to you to greater understanding and empathy.

Help make your colleagues’ lives better. Leaders use the power of their role to lead others into the discovery of their own unique strengths and weaknesses, especially during difficult circumstances. You can be a safe space for courageous and authentic conversations. You tell the truth as you see it, with the other person’s best interest at the forefront of the conversation. Leaders view the growth and development of the people they lead and the communities they serve as the great makers of their success.

Moving through layoffs is no fun for anyone, but you can use it to engage greater skill and empathy for the people that count on you.  Leadership matters even more when an organization is going through big changes and challenging times.  Be a leader that makes things better.

Previously published on Forbes