Posted by: healingtheworkplace | April 16, 2008

Healing the Wounds

There is no greater need for healing in organizations than in the aftermath of downsizing and layoffs. 

I was reminded of this over and over again while involved in the closing of two hospitals. During that time I came across the book Healing the Wounds by David M. Noer.

Noer’s book is a MUST READ for managers/leaders contemplating or engaged in downsizing their workforce. I think it would also be helpful for anyone who works in organizations that have been “downsized”. 

As an aside, the term “layoff” usually means that people will be returning to work when the economy improves and “downsizing” refers to permanent loss of jobs.

The book is actually targeted to three groups:

  • managers and leaders
  • layoff survivors
  • layoff victims

Survivors? Victims? Are we talking about the workplace here? Yup, sounds depressing doesn’t it?

The really scary part is that many of the organizations that Noer examined as part of his research had downsized in order to “transform” themselves into organizations that were MORE productive and competitive.

Instead, “the people who had survived the reductions were clearly fearful, angry and depressed. Yet this was the same work force that was expected to turn the organization around and meet global competition!”

Prior to the 1980s layoffs were considered temporary, often seasonal, and a part of doing business in some industries.  These layoffs were accepted because people knew they would eventually be able to return to work.

Then in the 1980s we began to hear about organizations that were “downsizing”. These organizations often closed down plants or operations on a permanent basis and for the first time, in recent history, thousands of people found themselves without work.

What I find interesting is that in the 1990s when the economy was on an upturn, even profitable organizations were downsizing or “rightsizing” and continuing with large scale layoffs.   

In situations of downsizing and layoffs human resources are charged with assisting those who are leaving the organization by providing the following:

  • severance
  • benefits
  • outplacement
  • Employee Assistance Programs

This is a good thing for the people who are leaving the organization but Noer found that little or no thought was given to the people who were “left behind”.  

Here are some of the reactions typical of “survivors”:

  • reduced risk-taking (reluctance to take on new challenges or introduce new ideas)
  • lowered productivity (survivors become consumed by the need for information and gossip increases)
  • thirst for information (any type of information that might reassure them that they will be ok)
  • blaming others (this blaming is usually targeted toward management–no-one wants to take responsibility)
  • justifying the need for the layoff (this is a way to ease the guilt felt by the survivors)
  • denial (it is not uncommon for management, especially upper management to deny the feelings of fear, insecurity, sadness, frustration which are typical of survivor syndrome)

I think that once management understands and accepts that the “survivor syndrome” is a real threat to the future health of their organizations they can begin to implement the recommendations in the book Healing the Wounds.

So the goal is to revitalize the organization.

But first a word about managment. Managers/leaders are survivors too and will need assistance as they are expected to “turn the organization around”.

So you will need to provide managers with knowledge and skills in transition or change management.

Managers also need to recognize that they will experience feelings of grief and loss.

Other areas of focus/interventions that will assist in revitalizing your organization:

  • Communication…you can’t communicate enough before, during and after the downsizing occurs
  • Recognize and help people deal with the stress that is inevitable (there will be fewer people to do the work and most will have heavier workloads)
  • Celebrate achievements
  • Develop cross-functional, self-directed workteams
  • Create new performance and reward systems
  • Encourage people to take control of their own careers and encourage personal growth and risk taking
  • Reconnect people with the vision, mission and values of the organization

 What’s your experience been? What else can be done to revitalize your organization? If you’re making a profit why do you need to downsize at all?

And for non-profit organizations there are things you can do to reduce costs BEFORE you terminate employees.





  1. I just went through a reorgnization. No major layoff but the effect was the same. I can affirmed the negative impacts to the “survivors”. It’s actually easy for the “victims” to move on to find a new job and turn into “new hires”, who are in much better positions than “survivors”.

    As you pointed out, the single thing that most needed in this hard time is honest communication. But, that rarely happened. There are so few managers who realize the “unknown” actually hurts more than “known”. A well defined, published criteria for lay off will be helpful in my opinion. But, even that, although sounds pretty fair, will create malicious competition in the workforce and eventually hurt the organizational culture in the long run. After all, “downsizing” breaks the “unspoken” bond between the employees and the employer. That wounds will take a long time to forget, but in my opinion, never heal fully.

    The only right thing to do is to hire more conservatively and selectively. And keep grow people on the job as the business grows and transform people when business trend shifts. Forcing qualified, hard working, engaged employees out, in my opinion, will never be a good practice.

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