Redundancy Survivors

by Rus Slater

Minimise survivor syndrome

If you don’t approach this subject seriously, you might end up with the type of approach summarised in this Q&A found on a web forum in early 2009.

It’s not that bad, but I’ve heard the mutterings around that people are a little down and depressed... they seem to also feel a little guilty for not being ‘reduced’.
  So how do you keep moral up? How do you keep up motivation, without the fear of being let go?
Give the survivors a huge pay rise and employ a lot more people to take some of the load off them?
Have a ‘kick your manager’ day.
Go bust.
Rent an MIB* memory wiper.
Pretend nothing happened and look confused and hurt when anyone brings up a one-off event that was in the past anyway.
Tell those who remain how lucky they are to have a job, while requesting sympathy for the awful task of having to lay off anyone else but yourself.
MIB is Men In Black (a sci-fi film); they have a device that wipes peoples’ minds of the memory of traumatic events.


If any of those answers sounds like the sort of approach you are working under or the type of approach you were considering, then read on!

The five-pronged approach

One recognised methodology is the following five-pronged approach to managing survivors.

1. Plan

Figure out how the redundancies have affected survivors and therefore how you can assist them. Work out sensible schedules for reassigning tasks and responsibilities. Remind people why the changes were necessary and how roles have changed.

2. Communicate

Take time to explain how the organisation plans to recover and grow and what role the employees can play.

Simply explaining to the survivors why redundancies have occurred will not be enough. It is crucial to discuss the situation with them at length and seek their input into how the business can best move forward from there.

Mike Toten

3. Listen empathetically

Most survivors will probably go through a traditional ‘trauma cycle’, with periods of denial, anger, grieving and guilt before they reach a calmer acceptance and an ability to move on and start to perform well. A manager who is able to console his or her team can help the team and individuals to reach this stage faster and therefore with less damage along the way. When your employees air their feelings, listen more and talk less. Avoid response and judgment until you have heard the person out. Use active listening skills: make eye contact, nod as appropriate, show you are listening and that you care.

4. Rebuild trust

Many survivors will feel at the very least disappointed; some will feel betrayed, and some will be wracked with guilt at the thought that they may be the betrayers. To try to rebuild trust, observe these important elements: demonstrate concern; listen to concerns; act with integrity; lead by example, and always offer support.

5. Develop survivors’ skills

With reassigned responsibilities and rising workloads, some employees may need additional training, coaching, support and advice. Anticipate this and make plans for it. Talk with your team as time passes, to see if they need more support.

Some additional tips for managing survivors

Managing survivors is neither particularly arduous nor complex, but it does require an attitude adjustment, particularly if you are a survivor yourself.

You need to show that you see how the survivors’ achievement (that is, keeping their jobs) was potentially a Pyrrhic victory, but that you recognise that the work for all of you is only just starting, not just finishing.

  • Understand the need for an adjustment period among survivors.
  • Help provide time and active support; don’t just tell people to come to you if they need to, because to do so in those circumstances would be an admission of failure/weakness.
  • Assess who is neither apathetic nor hostile to the new organisation/processes; these more positive employees will make the best supporters during the transition from reduced performance to performing excellently.
  • Try to personally exude optimism, minimise criticism, and acknowledge and celebrate all successes.
  • Team working is a skill. Build teamwork by recognising that you are all part of a new team, and make time and invest in teambuilding activities. These should be proper, sensible business teambuilding events, not just nights out and fun and games! (See Teambuilding.)
  • Recognise that your new team need to go through the Forming, Storming and Norming before you start Performing (see Tuckman model).
  • Foster camaraderie and encourage group discussions and input, seeking opinions and ideas; this proves your belief in the people.
  • Encourage humour, even if it’s gallows humour.
  • Don’t over promise; be honest. If you swear the redundancies are over and more occur, it’ll be almost impossible to regain trust.

Hosting a pity party

You may (all) benefit from holding a ‘pity party’ and letting your people air their feelings about the downsizing. This will give you the opportunity to exhibit empathy, which makes a huge contribution to effective leadership.

Stage 1

Start by having a discussion about their (and your) general emotions, and then move to the specific sources of the pain – crushing workloads, crimped salaries or whatever. Ask open questions; try not to ask leading questions, as these might stifle genuine offerings. Pay attention. Make it clear that you are taking great pains to listen and that you care about how people feel.

Stage 2

Be warned, though: At some point, you will come under attack. Don’t be defensive; remember the intention was to establish your empathy. Instead, accept the attacks with an apology and explain that you appreciate that the past was horrible for people. Don’t mention your suffering in being the bearer of bad news or the person who had to make the tough decision; it won’t look good; no one loved the hangman!

Giving employees an opportunity to let off steam and blame someone, in the hope that they will then calm down and go back to work is not enough; doing that indicates that management is not really interested in what their concerns are, it is just trying to control the damage by providing an outlet for anger.

Mike Toten

Stage 3

Move the discussions on to suggestions as to how you can make it easier for people to perform under the new reduced circumstances. ‘Look, I want the situation to improve as much as you do. Give me a list of deliverables, and I’ll do my best.’ Get a brainstorm going to generate a list of actions you can take to help your people. Once you have a list, get them to prioritise it.

Every item on the team’s list that you address will have a major effect in helping them to recognise the value they have and the fact that the organisation is moving forward. It will also really raise your stock as their leader.

Remember, too, that feelings of deprivation are always comparative.

  • In 1947-8, it snowed in the UK every day for three months. Food ran scarce; power was disrupted; fuel was hard to come by, and transport was a nightmare. There was comparatively little complaint as the nation was used to the strictures of war and rationing and people were accustomed to living without light and heat. In February 2009, Britain suffered three days of heavy snow. The country ground to a halt and there was much hand-wringing and finger-pointing and recrimination, as we are all now used to the centrally-heated comforts of modern life.
  • An American citizen at one stage deemed himself to living in poverty if he had an income of less that US$9,393 per annum. In China at the same time, the urban figure was US$1,058, while the same figure for rural areas was US$ 328.


The traditional reaction to the financial situation that triggered the downsizing is to cut back on everything. Sadly, this creates and reinforces the appearance of hopelessness, exacerbating survivor syndrome and all its negative effects.

Only by giving survivors the same, if not more, attention than those leaving can we expect the current levels of change taking place throughout the employment market to deliver the desired productivity gains.

Robin Wood, 12 February 2009, People Management magazine

Resist the temptation to cut back: redecorate, if appropriate; don’t cancel the Christmas Party; keep investing in training and development; don’t stop advertising; keep up your PR and social responsibility activities; invest in new equipment if the old stuff was scheduled for replacement; keep your sponsorship going, and promote worthy people.

If you have to, find ways of doing these things for a bit less money and check to ensure that you are getting a good return for your money, but don’t stop investing.

If the investment isn’t within your power, you can at least try to influence your boss to invest.

If all your efforts fail with a few people

At some point, of course, you may have to draw a hard line with some unhappy survivors. If they are convinced the grass is greener somewhere else, encourage them to follow their dreams.

Then you can get back to surviving.