From HBR.org – Rebecca Knight
Surviving a corporate reorg can be tough. There is often a lot of confusion and uncertainty, and if colleagues were laid off, people might also be sad or angry. How can you make the situation easier for yourself and your colleagues? What steps should you take to protect your job? How do you stay positive? And how do you know when it’s time to move on?
What the Experts Say
Restructurings may be an inevitable part of organizational life but living through them—even when you’re one of the lucky ones still standing—is challenging and stressful. On a personal level, “you have genuinely lost some friends” from the organization, says Kevin Coyne, the co-founder and managing director of strategy consulting firm Coyne Partners and a professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. And on a professional level, you’re likely to feel unsettled because it’s “unclear what life will be like under the new regime.” Reactions are typically varied, says Gretchen Spreitzer, a professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business and coauthor of How to be a Positive Leader. “Some people are cynical—there’s this sense of ‘You fired my friends’ and ‘This reorganization is never going to work.’” Then there are: “the walking wounded who are fearful about the future and worried for those who were let go.” Even stars may have trouble staying positive. “If you’re a high performer, you may feel a loss of control and start to question your options.” But Spreitzer says it’s important to approach the changes with an “optimistic” mindset. “You want to be one of the active advocates who take initiative to make the reorganization work,” she says. Here are some pointers on how to do that.
Before you react to the news, Spreitzer suggests you “listen carefully to what senior leadership is saying about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what’s the hoped-for outcome.” Management probably had good intentions for the restructuring—it believes the changes will cut costs, increase revenues, or improve efficiency. That said, “don’t just take the party line and run. Ask lots of questions.” Do your best to ignore the office rumor mill. Don’t listen to the chatter and certainly don’t contribute to it. “The information in the gossip network is probably inaccurate; it will be highly emotional; and there will be lots of venting,” she says.
Once you’ve absorbed the planned changes, you need to think about what they mean for your day-to-day responsibilities and your potential job satisfaction, according to Coyne. “After learning what the new game is, you must try to picture what your new job will look like in six to 12 months,” he says. “Then ask yourself some hard questions, such as, ‘Once I get beyond the temporary pain of this, will I still be proud of what this company stands for? Is my new role something I am equally happy and satisfied with?’” Even if you conclude that things have fundamentally changed, Coyne advises resisting the urge to quit immediately. “Don’t pull the trigger just yet,” he says. “You need more information,” and you can use the next several months to evaluate the situation.
In circumstances like these, it’s important to show concern and empathy for the people directly impacted by the reorg. “Reach out,” Spreitzer says. “Express sorrow that you’ll no longer be working together.” Whether you call, email, or drop by their house with a bottle of wine depends on how close you are to them, she adds. “Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would want someone to react if it happened to you.” When it comes to the right sentiment, less is more. “Say, ‘I’m sorry. This caught me off guard too. What can I do to help?’” Showing compassion is not only kind it’s also a smart career move, according to Coyne. You should stay in touch with departed colleagues “because those people are your advance warning” on what the job market is like and how you’ll fare should you decide it’s time to leave.
If you support the new direction your company is taking, it’s worth letting your boss know, says Coyne. “To the degree that it’s true, tell your manager that you’re on board and that you want to see this reorganization succeed,” he says. That way, he “knows he can count on you—and that you’re not just being a good soldier.” Then follow up with actions that demonstrate your support. Spreitzer recommends seeking ways to “help the organization become more resilient” during the transition. Think about your skills and expertise in addition to your professional passions. Is there perhaps a new position you could grow into? Are there new responsibilities you’d like to add to your current role?
Reorgs are an opportunity for you to “take control of your career” says Spreitzer, but you must also make sure you and your manager agree on where you should be focusing. Priorities have no doubt shifted and if the restructuring means that you’re supposed to take on tasks previously done by others, Coyne recommends you “quickly get on the same page” with your boss about “which parts of your combined workload can be reduced” or gotten rid of altogether. “You need to figure out the most important and least important parts of your new job.” Remember your boss is likely to be stretched thin too so you should “go to her with a proposal” about how you ought to allocate your attention and time. “Be constructive,” he says.
Manage your stress
In the midst of change and uncertainty, “you need to look for things that help you manage your stress,” says Spreitzer. “Be sure to make time for the things you love.” Spend time with family and friends; keep at hobbies and volunteer activities; and of course make sure you’re eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep. You might also try to “inject some levity” at the office to “raise people’s spirits and getting them out of the moroseness they may be feeling,” she adds. Introduce a daily music break, bring in some fresh flowers, or start a cookie-baking contest every other Friday. “The goal is to create fun and reduce the seriousness of the situation.”
Look for purpose
In addition to offering momentary mood-lifters, you can also work to boost long-term morale among your co-workers by focusing on your shared mission. ”Remind people why they are there in the first place,” Coyne says. If you’re a manager, this is even more critical. Have one-on-one conversations with your people to communicate that “what they do matters,” he says. “Help them see the nobility and purpose of their jobs of their jobs” and convey to them that “they are part of something they can be proud of.” Whenever you feel yourself struggling, Spreitzer suggests “looking for the little rays of light in your workday that give you meaning,” whether they are helping a colleague or interacting with a customer.
Give it time, but don’t hang on too long
It’s fair to “give management the benefit of the doubt” in the weeks and months after the reorg is announced, but if you remain skeptical of the changes after some time has passed, treat it as a sign. “Keep the periscope up,” says Spreitzer. “It you’ve tried to see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s been 60 to 90 days, it’s time to ask yourself, ‘Is this an organization I want to stay in?’ If not, you might need to start looking at your options,” she says. “You don’t want to be hanging on if you feel the company is moving in the wrong direction.” Coyne concurs: Once you’ve lived through “the short-term misery” of the restructuring and “gained perspective” about where the company is headed, you are in a better position to make a decision. “If the company is not doing something you feel proud of, you need to go to your contingency plan,” he says.
Principles to Remember
- Listen to and absorb what senior leadership says about why the reorg is happening
- Show compassion for colleagues directly affected
- Seek opportunities to use your skills and expertise to help your organization through the transition
- Give in to the doom and gloom—remind yourself (and others) of the nobility and purpose of your work
- Neglect your wellbeing—make sure you’re eating well, exercising, and getting enough rest
- Hang on too long—if you don’t believe your organization is moving in the right direction, look elsewhere
Case Study #1: Reframe your new responsibilities as an opportunity for growth
Karin Hurt had been working as an HR director at Verizon in Baltimore for more than a decade when a confluence of circumstances—including the company’s imminent merger with Bell Atlantic, her coworker getting fired, and her boss retiring—led to an enormous leap in the scope and scale of her job. The solution, according to management, was to reorganize the $6 billion business unit and give her HR responsibility for it.
The catch: She would not get an official promotion because she was unable to relocate to corporate headquarters in New York. “At first I was mad,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wait, I’m not going to get the job, but I’m going to do the job?’”
But it didn’t take her long to rethink that initial assessment. “This was a really good opportunity to sit at the strategic table and get exposure to senior leadership, and I decided I should embrace it,” she says. “I needed to trust the process.”
In her new role, Karin reported to the president of the business unit so one of her first moves was to ask him where he wanted her to focus. “A lot of priorities were changing and so we would talk on a regular basis about which ones were most important,” she says. “We often spoke on the phone at 7AM when it was quiet for both of us.”
The office environment was stressful both for Karin and for her team. She buffered her direct reports from the “politics and commotion” related to the merger by reminding them that their work had meaning. “I told them we were a part of something big, something historic,” she says. “With this merger we had the opportunity to put the right policies in place” to make sure the company was on solid footing.
Her good work caught the eye of the senior vice president of customer service. “He took me aside and said, ‘You’re young in your career to focus on only HR. Are you interested in doing other things?’ As a result, I took on a series of field assignments and that led to promotions. It catapulted my career.”
It also gave her the confidence and contacts to start her own firm. She left Verizon in 2014, and today she is the CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, a consulting company. “When I look back on my time there, I feel grateful,” she says.
Case Study #2: Understand your organization’s new goals and align your priorities
Sid Savara was six months into his job as a lead engineer at a Department of Defense contractor in Hawaii when he started hearing rumors that funding for his project would soon be cut. “I tried not to take part in [the gossip] and just do the best job I could,” he says.
The uncertainty continued for another six months until a VP from the company’s Virginia headquarters showed up unexpectedly at his office one day to announce strategic changes. “He said, ‘Finish what you’re doing. This project is ending. We’re going to restructure and move people around,’” Sid recalls.
Sid’s fate was unclear at that point, so he asked the VP a lot of questions: What is the timeline of the restructuring? What is the new direction of the company? What is the business model for other projects?
He was unnerved by the answers he received. “I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the new projects. Some customers are nicer to deal with than others, some projects are more interesting than others,” he says. “I started to look for a new job and even had some telephone interviews.”
A week later Sid found out he was being reassigned as a team leader for a new project. Half of his prior team was let go. “I decided I was going to give it a chance. I didn’t want make a rash decision to leave,” he says.
On the first day of his new job, Sid had a “proper sit-down” with his new boss to learn about his role in relation to the business. “He explained to me what was going on, how the division works, how we make money, and that helped me align our team’s efforts with those goals.”
This helped him to understand his boss’s most important goals and think about new business opportunities and potential partnerships. “I changed our priorities as I learned more about the business. I understood the roadmap better, and I developed a stronger sense of where developers should be spending their time.”
Sid ended up staying at the company for another four years. Today he is a technical manager at the University of Hawaii.