As the economy softens, corporate downsizing appears almost inevitable. Don’t panic yet, though. While layoff decisions might seem beyond your control, there’s plenty you can do to make sure you retain your job.
In this article, Banks, a former HR executive at Chase Manhattan and FleetBoston Financial, and Coutu, an HBR senior editor and former affiliate scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, describe how to improve your chances of survival. It’s mostly a matter of coolheaded planning, they observe. When cuts loom, the first thing to do is act like a survivor. Be confident and cheerful. Research shows that congeniality trumps competence when push comes to shove. Look to the future by focusing on customers, for without them, no one will have work. Survivors also tend to be versatile; tight budgets demand managers who can wear several hats, so start demonstrating what other capabilities you can offer. If you’re, say, a manager who once worked as a teacher, take on a training role.
Remember to be a good corporate citizen: Participation matters now more than ever. It isn’t the time to behave as if work is beneath you or to argue for a new title. When one executive’s department was folded under the management of a less-experienced colleague, she swallowed her pride and wholeheartedly supported the new hierarchy. Her superiors noticed her commitment and eventually rewarded her with a prestigious appointment.
It’s also important to offer leaders hope and realistic solutions. Energize your colleagues around change, like the VP of learning at a firm undergoing major staff reductions did. He organized a humorous in-house radio show that revived spirits and helped management communicate with employees—and ended up with a promotion.
The Idea in Brief
Your company has a strategy for surviving hard times. But do you? In a troubled economy, layoffs can hit with frightening regularity. Sure, these decisions may be beyond your control. Yet you can take steps to protect your job, say Banks and Coutu.
Three practices can help you minimize the chances of becoming a casualty: 1) Act like a survivor by demonstrating confidence and staying focused on the future. 2) Give your boss hope by empathizing with him or her and inspiring your team to pull together. 3) Become a corporate citizen by taking part in meetings, outings, and new projects designed to support a reorganization.
The Idea in Practice
Banks and Coutu recommend three strategies for recession-proofing your job.
Act Like a Survivor
If you want to be a layoff survivor, it helps to act like one:
Demonstrate confidence and cheerfulness.
- When people need help getting jobs done, they’ll choose a congenial colleague over an unlikeable one. No one wants to be in the trenches with someone who’s always gloomy.
Keep your eye on the future.
- There’s no better way to look forward than to sharpen your focus on customers. Without them, no one will have a job in the future. Make anticipating customers’ needs your top priority. And show how your work is relevant to meeting those needs.
Wear multiple hats.
- To keep expenses in check, look for opportunities to play more than one role and leverage your diverse experiences. For instance, a marketing manager who had previously taught school volunteered to take on sales training responsibilities.
Give Your Boss Hope
The better your relationship with your manager, the less likely it is that you’ll be cut. Strengthen that bond through these practices:
- Most leaders find layoffs agonizing. By empathizing with your manager, you deepen your bond. You also demonstrate a maturity that’s invaluable—because it models good behavior for others.
Unite and inspire your colleagues.
- This ability can prove crucial during the worst of times.
At an international financial services company that had endured a 20% staff reduction, morale had plummeted. Isaac, a learning and development VP, assembled a team of volunteers who created a live radio show that engaged even cynical employees. It included a soap opera that kept staff laughing and waiting for the next episode. And it gave executives a platform to share key information, such as the company’s performance and structural changes. Morale improved, and Isaac eventually became head of management and leadership development.
Become a Corporate Citizen
Eighty percent of success is showing up. To become a corporate citizen:
- Attend all voluntary and informal meetings and corporate outings.
- Get out of your office and walk the floor to see how people are doing.
- Get on board with new initiatives; for example, by volunteering to lead a newly formed team crucial to your company’s recovery strategy.
In a troubled economy, job eliminations and hiring freezes seem almost routine, but when your own company’s woes start to make headlines, it all hits home. Intellectually, you understand that downsizing isn’t personal; it’s just a law of commerce, but your heart sinks at the prospect of losing your position. While you know that passivity is a mistake, it’s hard to be proactive when your boss’s door is always closed, new projects are put on hold, and your direct reports look to you for reassurance. Don’t panic. Even though layoff decisions may be beyond your control, there’s plenty you can do.
That’s what we’ve observed in numerous layoffs over the years and in research on how people respond to stressful work conditions. (Author Janet Banks oversaw a dozen downsizings as a vice president in human resources at Chase Manhattan Bank and a managing director at FleetBoston Financial. Author Diane Coutu studied resilience during her time as an affiliate scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.) We’ve seen that while luck plays an important role, survival is most often the result of staring reality in the face and making concrete plans to shape the future. Machiavellian as it may seem, holding on to your job when the economy softens is a matter of cool strategic planning. In our experience, however, even the savviest executives are ill-prepared to deal with job threats. Here’s what you can do to keep your career moving and minimize the chances that you’ll become a casualty.
Act Like a Survivor
A popular partner in the Brussels office of McKinsey & Company mentored hosts of junior consultants. When asked for advice on getting ahead, he always gave the same reply: “If you want to be a partner, start acting like one.” The corollary of this advice is even more important: During a recession, you have to start acting like a survivor if you hope to escape the ax.
Studying the thinking of survivors reveals a surprising paradox. Though creating a plan to weather layoffs requires an almost pessimistic realism, the best thing you can do in a recession is lighten up. Keep your eye firmly on the eight ball, but act confident and cheerful. Research shows that being fun to be around really matters. Work by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, published in a June 2005 HBR article, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” shows that while everyone prefers working with a personable superstar to an incompetent jerk, when people need help getting a job done, they’ll choose a congenial colleague over one who is more capable but less lovable. We’re not suggesting that you morph into Jerry Seinfeld; being congenial and fun isn’t about bringing down the house. Just don’t be the guy who’s always in a bad mood, reminding colleagues how vulnerable everyone is. Who wants to be in the trenches with him?
This article also appears in:
Of course, putting on a good face can be psychologically exhausting when rumors of downsizing spread. Change always stirs up fears of the unknown. Will you land another job? How will you pay the mortgage? Can you find affordable health insurance? Those are all valid concerns, but if you stay positive, you’ll have more influence on how things play out.
Survivors are also forward looking. Studies of concentration camp victims show that people made it through by imagining a future for themselves. The power of focusing on the times ahead is evident even among people suffering the blows of everyday life. As Freud wrote in “Mourning and Melancholia,” a critical difference between ordinary grief and acute depression is that mourners can successfully anticipate a life where there will once again be joy and meaning.
In your job, there’s no better way to look forward than to stay focused on customers, for without them no one will have a job in the future. Anticipating the needs of your customers, both external and internal, should be your top priority. Prove your value to the firm by showing your relevance to the work at hand, which may have shifted since the economy softened. Your job is less likely to be eliminated if customers find that your contribution is indispensable.
Being ambidextrous will increase your chances of survival as well. In one company we know of, senior staff members were often expected to play more than one role to keep expenses in check. When the organization’s new chief operating officer decided he needed a chief of staff, he chose a person who continued to manage a human resources team, thereby eliminating the need for additional head count. Reorganizations and consolidations involve great change, so they demand versatile executives. If you’re not already wearing multiple hats, start imagining how you can support your company by leveraging experience your boss may know nothing about. A marketing manager who taught school before moving into industry might volunteer to take on sales and service training responsibilities, for example. A recession can offer you plenty of opportunities to display your capabilities. Layoffs typically occur at all levels of an organization and can create vacuums above and below you.
Finally, survivors are willing to swallow a little pride. Take the case of Anne, a manager at a large New England insurance company. (We’ve changed her name, as well as those of the other individuals cited in this article.) During a reorganization, Anne found herself vying for a position with a colleague who had far less industry experience than she did. When she learned that she and her department would be folded under this colleague’s department, Anne realized that she had one choice if she wanted to keep her job—use her significant influence to support her new manager. So she publicly threw herself behind the colleague. In turn, he gave her the respect and the loyalty she felt she deserved. Anne’s attitude demonstrated commitment to the company—something that was noticed by the management. A year later Anne got new responsibilities that led to a prestigious board appointment.
Give Your Leaders Hope
It’s important to recognize that times of uncertainty are also tough for leaders. They don’t enjoy having to lay off their people; most find that task agonizing. It can be stressful and time-consuming for them to sort through the various change mandates they’ve been given and then decide what to do. Obviously, this isn’t the time to push for a promotion or to argue for a new job title. Instead, try to help the leader defend your department. If the boss is working on a restructuring plan and asks for ideas, offer some realistic solutions. Don’t fight change; energize your colleagues around it.
It may sound like what Karl Marx called false consciousness—thinking that disempowers you because it is not in your best interest—to empathize with your boss when he or she is considering cutting your job. However, there’s science to support the idea that showing empathy for people more powerful than you can be worthwhile. For example, recent mother-infant research shows that the more an infant smiles and interacts with the environment, the more active the caretaker becomes in the infant’s development and survival. Although the mother-infant research has not, to our knowledge, been replicated in the workplace, psychologists have shown that so-called attachment behavior—emotional bonding—can be learned, just as emotional intelligence skills can be honed. That’s good news. The better your relationship with your manager, the less likely you are to be cut, all things being equal. Your ability to empathize can demonstrate a maturity that is invaluable to the company, not least because it models good behavior for others.
There’s science to support the idea that showing empathy for powerful people can pay off.
The ability to unite and inspire colleagues goes a long way in the best of times; in the worst it’s crucial. This was true at an international financial services company that had endured a staff reduction of 20%. In the face of low morale, the head of human resources asked Isaac, a learning and development VP, to help revive people’s spirits, improve communications, and stir up some fun. Isaac quickly pulled together a small team of volunteers and created a live radio show that engaged even the most cynical members of the organization. It included a soap opera that kept staff at all levels laughing and waiting for the next episode. The show gave executives a unique platform to share information such as quarterly financial results and changes in the organization’s structure. It did so much to improve morale that as a result Isaac landed the job he wanted—head of management and leadership development for the company.
Become a Corporate Citizen
Remember Woody Allen’s remark that 80% of success is showing up? That is especially useful advice in a downturn. Start going to all those voluntary and informal meetings you used to skip. Be visible. Get out of your office and walk the floor to see how folks are doing. Take part in company outings; if the firm is gathering for the annual golf tournament and you can’t tell a wood from an iron, then go along just for fun. In tough times, leaders look for employees who are enthusiastic participants. It’s not the score that counts.
Corporate citizens are quick to get on board. Consider Linda, a VP in operations, who worked in a large company that needed to cut costs. Management came up with the idea of shared service centers to avoid duplication of effort in staff functions in areas such as compensation, management training, and strategic planning. The decision was universally unpopular. Service center jobs had none of the cachet of working in small business units, where customized solutions could be developed. Headquarters staff objected to losing the elite status they’d enjoyed as corporate experts. When service center jobs were posted, many high-profile people refused to put their names forward, misjudging their own importance and hoping management would relent. But Linda saw the opportunity and applied for a service center job. The new position gave her immense visibility and was an immediate promotion. Meanwhile, many of the resisters found themselves standing without a chair when the music stopped. In contrast, Linda kept her career on track; six years later she reported directly to the president of the company.
Many who resisted change found themselves without a chair when the music stopped.
Of course, changing your behavior or personality to survive may rub against your need for authenticity, and you may decide that it’s time to move on. In that case, you can be both true to yourself and the ultimate corporate citizen by volunteering to leave the organization. Despite what the policy may be, companies will cut deals. Deals are even welcomed. It’s much less painful for managers if they can help someone out the door who wants to leave rather than give bad news to someone who depends on the job. If you’re a couple of years away from retirement eligibility and want to go, ask the company if it would be willing to bridge the time. Float a few balloons, but don’t get greedy. Keep in mind that even if you choose to go, you may need to get another job and you’ll want good references and referrals. If you’ve exited gracefully, odds are, your boss and others will do whatever they can to help you land on your feet.• • •
Many forces are beyond your control in a recession, but if you direct your energy toward developing a strategy, you’ll have a better chance of riding out the storm. You have to be extremely competent to make it through, but your attitude, your willingness to help the boss get the job done, and your contribution as a corporate citizen have a big impact on whether you are asked to stick around. The economy will bounce back; your job is to make sure that you do, too.