In recent months, layoffs have impacted thousands of workers across the tech industry. News of layoffs has created a wave of fear, uncertainty and mistrust among the tech workforce — certainly among those who have been directly affected but also among workers who have been left behind.
In times of economic turmoil, chief information officers may face the arduous task of downsizing their teams. Layoffs require careful planning, implementation and transitioning, yet under pressure for results, many C-level executives underestimate the post-layoff human factor.
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They focus on driving business as usual and spend too little time dealing with the emotional toll on their organization, expecting employees to accept the situation and move on. Inevitably, this leads to drops in productivity, engagement and talent retention.
For rapid and effective recovery from layoffs, CIOs must address emotional symptoms and unresolved conflicts while supporting the business’s financial recovery. When facing layoffs, CIOs should plan their response and recovery around three key steps.
Step 1: Assess your state of mind
Downsizing affects all those involved, creating feelings of guilt, anxiety, cynicism, disorientation, emotional numbness, sadness or withdrawal; this includes the CIO. Emotionally drained the day after the layoff, they are expected to face their teams and ensure high team performance.
Many CIOs convey a calm and collected image, when in fact their emotions require processing. Unresolved emotional trauma can block people’s capacity to engage, to produce and — as is critical for a CIO — to lead.
When leaders bottle up their feelings, they are more likely to snap at colleagues, overwork teams and burn out. If CIOs want to lead an effective recovery, they need to spend time assessing and resetting their own state of mind.
CIOs should consider turning to support networks who can provide emotional support and practical guidance. With space to unpack and process stress safely, the CIO can gain perspective and alleviate emotional distress.
As the recovery process starts, many CIOs will focus all of their energy on achieving the desired business results and leave little energy for themselves. When leaders lose touch with themselves, they lose stamina and stop playing to their strengths. They forget why they are leading, and everyone loses.
Before initiating this arduous journey to recovery, CIOs must reconnect with their leadership role. After CIOs have more clarity about their role in this new context, they can start planning the first interventions.
Step 2: PLAN the first interventions to recovery
The CIO must define an overall direction before reengaging with the surviving team. Effective recovery comes from leaders who know how to “PLAN” — what to prioritize, how to leverage influencers and anticipate resistance, and how to nurture realism.
Downsizing is not only about the elimination of positions or jobs; it also affects how a company does business. CIOs must prioritize actions by mapping the main activities performed by each team to their business relevance and their implementation difficulty. This will help CIOs identify quick wins with low implementation difficulty, top priorities with high business relevance and so on.
CIOs should present overall priorities and give colleagues space to share feedback. By listening to the team, CIOs show respect for their position and experience and help empower the team. They should ask team members to identify potential capability gaps for each critical change, such as access to information, training, corporate governance and so on.
Without the proper capabilities, selling an optimistic future will only frustrate the team further. The CIO should focus the team’s energy on designing pragmatic solutions and mitigations to the main obstacles. Fostering this co-creation of the future will allow team members to feel more in control of their destinies and reduce anxiety.
Leverage influencers and anticipate resistance
CIOs need to understand who can make or break the recovery process. Next to each significant change, CIOs should list possible influencers and resistors as well as plan on how to leverage or mitigate them. With this list at hand, CIOs will be able to prioritize one-on-one sessions with specific stakeholders.
CIOs need to keep themselves grounded. This means recognizing that although they might not completely agree on “how” or “what” corporate decisions were made, they must own the corporate position. If they do not, emotional turmoil will cloud their judgments.
Once on board with the corporate story, CIOs must own the hard facts and engage with other C-level executives to build a recovery plan. Lastly, they need to recognize that the transformation is only at its beginning. There is no certainty in the future, so they should be prepared to not have answers to everything. Do not make promises that cannot be kept.
Step 3: Rebuild the foundation of trust
And now comes the hardest part: the CIO needs to address the breach of trust in the organization. Initiate a dialogue with the team where both parties have space to share information, starting no later than 15 days after downsizing. Both virtual and face-to-face meetings can create an inclusive communication strategy where all are respected and heard.
In this phase, it is important to nurture a sense of realism. CIOs should give employees the right facts in alignment with the corporate story and be honest about what they know and don’t know. Most importantly, they should listen. Two options for conducting two-way conversations are “ask me anything” forums and “quality time” with leaders.
At ask-me-anything events, the CIO responds to live questions submitted by participants; these may be submitted anonymously. Such events have been proven to be an effective way to engage large groups. Facing questions from the hot seat is tough, but it allows the CIO to measure the team’s pulse and diagnose critical issues early, and it helps to humanize CIOs as leaders. In willingly taking the hot seat, CIOs show a genuine interest in listening to what their teams have to say.
A quality-time event is usually a one-hour, one-on-one session intended to initiate a conversation with a direct report or critical stakeholder. Both individuals bring a key topic that they would like to discuss. The CIO should use these sessions to listen actively, promote involvement and encourage an emotional response. Quality time allows CIOs to acknowledge individual fears and feelings — an important preventive measure to reduce time spent managing problematic behaviors in the future.
Acknowledging the organizational trauma and planning the first steps
Open dialogues in situations of trauma can be emotionally draining, so teams will require a support network to help them process change. For example, a health and wellness hotline or platform or mentoring programs can be beneficial. CIOs should also regularly check on employees and adapt their PLAN based on feedback. This shows employees that they are being heard.
The path toward recovery after aggressive layoffs does not stop here. It is a complex and sinuous journey that, coupled with the uncertainties and emotional charge of the current socioeconomic climate, only reinforces the importance of the CIO’s role in acknowledging the existence of organizational trauma and planning the first interventions wisely. The first steps will set the overall tone for the transformation to come.
Gabriela Vogel is a senior director analyst at Gartner Executive Leadership. Seasoned in leading strategic business transformation programs and dealing with adversity across different continents and industries, Vogel advises executives with a pragmatic vision on how to lead in times of change by balancing off the human factor in their decision-making process. She supports executives by identifying critical adversity and designing possible strategies for tackling each of them.