Cutting jobs? The pain can be eased

Heard any positive, uplifting IT workforce downsizing stories lately? There aren't many. I've recently heard hundreds of ugly anecdotes in vivid detail, and I'm getting really tired of them.

          Heard any positive, uplifting IT workforce downsizing stories lately? There aren't many. I've recently heard hundreds of ugly anecdotes in vivid detail, and I'm getting really tired of them.

          You'd think that after several decades of economic recessions and industry shake-ups, employers would have learned that a reduction in force accomplished in a coldly methodical, even brutal, fashion is in nobody's best interest. It's not only demoralising and unnecessary, but also stupid. How well off will employers be in a year or two, when market disturbances subside but workers' grudges haven't and rehiring efforts are under way?

          Sadly, senior execs often pay more attention to lawyers and finance guys when it comes to cutting heads. That's not a bad thing, but they'd be better off listening to a psychologist's perspective. Why? Because it's impossible to achieve any type of organisational change without getting to the personal stuff, and downsizing involves transitions in projects, workload, pay and careers that are extremely unsettling.

          The management challenge is to get people to stop doing things the old way. That can't be accomplished impersonally. It requires a mastery of techniques and delicate skills that can be easily learned and practiced and have value far beyond the periodic reduction in force.

          In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Perseus Books, 1991), William Bridges presents a simple three-phase transition model that eliminates much of the mystery surrounding the human side of change. He implores us to manage transition instead of change, which he describes as situational and focused on outcomes that are external (something done "to you") and virtually impossible to control. He reminds us that change triggers an internal psychological reorientation process the "transition" that workers must endure to come to terms with change. There's a beginning and an end, and hopefully a peaceful journey in between.

          Change efforts that disregard this transition process are doomed. The biggest mistake employers make when implementing reductions in force is failing to identify and prepare their workers for the inevitable psychological adjustments that sudden change produces. Leaders naively assume that when changes are decided upon and well planned, they'll just happen.

          Nothing undermines organisational change more than the failure to realise who will have to let go of what, writes Bridges, so Phase 1 of his model is the "Letting Go Stage." It's critical to identify who's losing what, anticipate overreaction and acknowledge the losses. Give grieving workers ways to openly vent their anger and frustration, and repeat information until it sinks in. Explicitly define what's over and what's not. Treat the past with respect, even letting people take a piece of the old ways with them.

          Phase 2 is the "Neutral Zone," an open-ended period when workers are firmly rooted in neither the past nor the present. As their world is being redefined, temporary technical and business systems are created, intragroup connections strengthened, and new ways of doing things are tried. Phase 3, "New Beginning," is exactly that. It's psychological as well as practical, with some ambivalence naturally present. There are new rules, systems, understandings, values, attitudes and identities. Consistency is important, as are acknowledging successes and celebrating even the smallest victories.

          Poorly managed transitions breed guilt, resentment, anxiety, self-absorption and stress in IT workers, plus time delays, quality problems and performance problems in their projects. Can you afford that?

          Foote is founder and chief research officer at Foote Partners, an IT workforce management research firm and organisational consultancy in New Canaan, Connecticut. Send email to David Foote.

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