The decision to lay-off workers is driven by quantitative measures: the harsh arithmetic of budgets and decreased cash flow, disappearing customers and decreased volume. In arriving at this decision the balance between head and heart--the logical versus the emotional--is tipped heavily toward head.
Once a leader gets to the point of accepting that lay-offs are necessary, arithmetic and algorithms give way to decisions tinged with emotion. Knowing whom to let go isn't always a mathematical certainty, and the metaphoric balance swings toward a wobbly center. Finally, when the time comes to let people know their jobs are gone, the balance must lean toward the emotional, the heart side.
Good leaders accept that no matter how logical the decision process has been to this point, when it comes to doing the deed, the leader must take into account that these are human beings, not ciphers, who are getting bad news.
The leader who can't be compassionate at this point is probably thinking about his or her own comfort, instead of focusing on what employees are going through. If compassion isn't your thing, there are plenty of good business reasons to dust off your under-used empathic skills.
Leaders have to marshal the remaining team members and get them to be productive, but inspiring those left standing is going to be tougher than it has ever been. Leaders who think "they wouldn't dare leave in this economy" or "if they want to keep their jobs, they'll work hard" are missing the point. Threats aren't inspiring and zombie-bodies in the office chairs aren't going to rebuild a battered company.
Good leaders deliver bad news in person, face-to-face whenever that's possible. They strive for transparency and honesty through the whole process. They are respectful to those being let go because it's the right thing to do, and because it's the first step to getting the organization back on course with the help of all those still left, all those who have been watching how the leader acts during this test.
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