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Leading through layoffs: now what?


Much has been written about the layoffs in tech in recent weeks. Many people are feeling a lot of anguish, wondering how to show up as their best selves and act with compassion during this painful period. Here are a few of the lessons I have gleaned from observing leaders navigate this difficult time with courage and grace. These lessons hold true beyond the current moment and apply to a variety of scenarios that you may inevitably face as a leader.


Embrace the suck

Times like this are difficult. If you are feeling torn up about having to let people go, it’s because it is awful. Knowing that someone relies on their paycheck to pay the rent, just welcomed a new baby into the world, or is caring for an aging parent makes it even harder to bear. At the same time, layoffs may be something you cannot avoid as a company executive – they are a challenge that you may need to navigate. To be sure, the scale of this current wave is different and has been felt in a wrenching way across the industry. But there is wisdom in accepting the situation and recognizing there is no perfect way to navigate it. Sometimes things are awful and you have to surrender to them. What you can do is bring your best self to the moment.


Let your values be your guide

In moments of crisis and chaos, one of the most impactful things you can do – for yourself and others - is to pause and reflect on which of your most deeply held values you want to lead with. If you value honesty and authenticity, consider how you embody these values as you speak to employees affected by the layoffs. If being caring is important to you, how can you bring the quality of care to your leadership, even though it may not be possible for you to care for everyone. If integrity is one of your pillars, craft a message you can stand by. For example, if you don’t yet know what the future holds, it may be better not to make promises about job security to employees who have survived this round of layoffs. Where there is no playbook, your values become your guide in how you show up, the words you choose, and how you lead others through a tough moment. Leading from your values is to lead with humanity and creates a foundation of trust when it is most needed.


Put on your oxygen mask first

Leading through layoffs takes an enormous emotional, mental, and physical toll on everyone. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed or not being able to sleep. Instead, if you are on overload or feeling out of sorts, give yourself permission to take time out. Tune into what your body is telling you and when you have hit a wall. You may be feeling unusually irritable, anxious, or foggy. This is the moment to cut yourself some slack. Clear your calendar. Take a walk around the block or sit down with a cup of tea if you are struggling to relax. Eat well, play with your kids, and pass on things you don’t need to do. Recognize that this is a profoundly difficult time and will continue to be for some time. Losing people across the organization means you are likely going to have to do more with less, adjust to new organizational structures, and bring your team along with you.


Adjust to the new reality and move forward


In the wake of what just happened, everyone is left with difficult thoughts and emotions – from survivor’s guilt to grief at the loss of colleagues and anxiety about the future. As a leader, it’s important for you to carve out time to process your own emotions so you can be fully present for your team during your workday. It’s now on your shoulders to do the patient work of helping them re-connect and re-engage, and it won’t happen overnight. Accept that circumstances have changed, and you will need to lead them through this pivotal moment in a different way. Meet them where they are; acknowledge that it has been a rough period, and that you feel their pain, sadness, and exhaustion. Be honest about what you can commit to – and be transparent about the things that are still unclear. Your team wants to know that you get them, are committed to giving your all, and you want them alongside you on the journey. This is the moment to focus on the future for the sake of those who remain and to model the culture and behaviors that you want for the future of your organization.


Whether you have been here before or it is your first time, it’s not easy. In fact, this may be one of the hardest moments of your career. Taking the time to reground yourself in what is most essential will help you step into your best self so that you can be the best possible leader for others.


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