Managing a Reduction In Force: Help Yourself and Your Team

woman at desk thinkingA reduction in force is arguably one of the most difficult situations you may face in your career as a manager.  Knowing that the decisions about what positions are eliminated affect both those exiting and those remaining in the organization can be a stressful burden to carry and a tough message to deliver. Although there’s not a painless path through this process, there are steps you can take to  both care for yourself and your team, while helping build a collaborative, supportive, and innovative culture. You can move from anxiety to exciting, but it takes effort. And that effort starts with taking care of yourself.

Staying Self-Aware:

It’s natural for you to experience a fairly wide variety of feelings,  thoughts, and physical reactions as changes are being communicated.

Common Thoughts and Feelings:

  • Relief and/or guilt that your job was not eliminated
  • Anger that you have to help communicate or manage the after-effects of layoffs
  • A desire to escape the situation and pretend it’s not happening
  • Anger or frustration with senior leaders regarding layoff decisions
  • Anxiety about how to handle an employee whose position is being eliminated (whether or not you have to communicate the news)
  • Fear about people reacting in an overly emotional way to the news
  • The urge to “take care of” everyone and to make everything “ok”
  • Concern about how the employees (and their families) leaving the organization will manage
  • Sadness over relationships with particular employees who are leaving or moving to other parts of the organization
  • Fear of additional position eliminations
  • Questioning your career and the role it plays in your life
  • Questioning whether or not you should stay with the organization

Physical Signs of Stress :

  • Fatigue or an overall decline in energy
  • Changes in appetite — both wanting to eat more or a loss of appetite are common
  • Difficulty maintaining your attention or in reaching decisions
  • Sleep disturbance — inability to fall asleep, problems staying asleep,  or wanting to sleep too much

Caring For Yourself

Being aware of and acknowledging your reactions to the situation is the first step in moving forward. Improve your ability to move through this time by actively caring for yourself. Choosing to implement tips from the following sections may be helpful.

Managing Your Thoughts and Emotions:

Respect your feelings and thoughts. You are most likely responding to stress in a very natural manner. The “grief cycle,” as introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, applies to significant changes at work, so expect that you may move through different stages (denial, anger and guilt, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance) more than once and over a longer period of time than you might anticipate.

  • Avoid the temptation to withdraw completely. Instead share the situation with friends/colleagues you trust, ask for or be open to support from them.
  • Practice patience—with yourself and others—during this time when irritability and anxiety may surface more often.
  • Seek clarity about your supervisor’s expectations of you and your team. Be sure you understand any new goals for your division and department.
  • Set your goals and make progress toward them, but don’t try to be perfect or all things to all people.
  • Dedicate 10-15 minutes to planning at the start (or end) of every day. Putting your plans in writing helps you be more productive.
  • Prioritize the most important tasks every day so that you use your time and energy toward your highest priorities.
  • Work a quick walk into your day. Even 10 minutes will help clear your head and help you think more clearly.
  • Work healthy foods into your diet and avoid leaning on caffeine and sugar to get you through the day.
  • Try keeping a consistent sleep schedule and know you may need more rest in times of intense change.
  • If you feel “stuck” in any particular stage of the grief cycle, consider contacting SMU’s confidential employee assistance program (EAP) provided by Magellan Health.
  • Consult a member of the Employee Relations team in Human Resources for additional specific strategies to help manage yourself and your performance during times of change.
  • Join Wellpower and choose to focus on just a few areas of your well-being.

Supporting Your Team Members

  • Acknowledge that the situation is difficult and if team members need to talk, try to listen without becoming defensive or impatient.
  • Be honest and avoid making promises you’re unsure you can keep.
  • Schedule extra time to stay in communication with your manager and your team so you can keep everyone informed as needed.
  • Individuals leaving the organization will be receiving a severance package which includes career support services. Although it may seem easier to dwell on the negative, try to remain optimistic about their ability to move forward successfully.
  • Allow others time and space to process the changes. Be a conduit for information and support, but try avoid the urge to “fix” the situation for others.
  • Explain or clarify the expectations for any new team member or one whose responsibilities have shifted. People want to understand both “why” their roles are changing and “what” they are expected to do differently.
  • Speak up when you have an idea you think might help your organization move forward. This is a time when creative problem-solving is in high demand.
  • Although we are striving for excellence, perfection is unattainable. Be gentle on your team, while challenging them to grow and adapt quickly.
  • If you see a member of your team struggling more than expected, suggest he/she talk with the EAP. It’s completely confidential and all phone calls are free as are the first three in-person visits.
  • Take advantage of technical expertise and support from OIT and any other types of education and support from Human Resources or other departments.

Taking these steps can help you feel more empowered in your role as a manager and move your team forward through a time of ambiguity and change toward a healthy culture and level of productivity.

If you have questions or want to consult with a member of the employee relations team, email us at or call the HR                                                        front desk at 8-3311 and ask to speak with a                                                      member of the ER Team.