So how do your “survivors” feel right now?

Posted in: Bloggery

Some time back we wrote about the “survivors” of downsizing activity – and how there was such a thing as the “survivor syndrome”.  This was a condition said to afflict those who were left after a restructuring, often feeling dispirited, overworked and unloved. In fact one of several costs rarely counted in restructuring initiatives are those associated with subsequent waves of departures – of those whose loyalty to an organisation had taken something of a battering.

In fact one of several costs rarely counted in restructuring initiatives are those associated with subsequent waves of departures – of those whose loyalty to an organisation had taken something of a battering.

This paper is in our Reading Room, and is titled “Ensuring that Restructuring and Downsizing actually Works”.  We observed within it that “Change produces anxiety, irrespective of whether it is self-initiated or imposed by others. Therefore people suffering “survivors syndrome” often experience some or all of the following emotions and feelings:

  • feelings of job insecurity
  • perceptions of injustice and mistrust
  • high levels of stress
  • feel “paralysed by the fear that the next wave of surprise layoffs could affect them;”
  • they have been faced with dramatic increase in workloads and a diminished sense of organizational value
  • they have started going through a process of re-evaluating their current career situation within the context of their organization and the job market.

In terms of work behaviours these include lowered work performance or organizational commitment, loss of discretionary effort, or “going the extra mile”, increased absenteeism and greater intentions to leave the organisation, as they begin to question their hard work, commitment and loyalty to the organisation.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, said in the February 9, 2009 edition of the Washington Post, “There are two things to say about downsizing: It seldom works and is often done incorrectly.” Downsizing has a negative effect on corporate memory and employee morale, disrupts social networks, causes a loss of nowledge, and disrupts learning networks.[i]

For some time I have had the feeling that whilst most firms in Australia have more or less stopped downsizing, for a further period of months there has been something of a state of paralysis:  few courageous initiatives into new markets, either organically or via acquisition, and very strong cautions around any level of new expenditure.  We are all being very cautious, waiting for the Australian economy, and indeed the world economy, to move into forward gear again.

So where does this leave the “survivors”?  Are many employees today in a state of limbo – feeling that their organisations, and in fact their careers, are not moving forward?  On a scale out of ten, where would you rate workforce and managerial loyalty, as at 2008 (just prior to the GFC) and then as this might be rated today?  Have expectations been lowered, and then with that reality absorbed, are we back to feeling positive about our work and our organisations?

Or are we seeing a steady increase in what might be described as another syndrome?  The “independent, dis-engaged and more determined to make my own way in the future” people.  Has the reciprocity associated with past employment relationships diminished ?

Are we likely to see an upsurge in turnover levels, as the economy improves and business gets moving again?

It would be interesting if there was some research out there tracking expectations and ambitions in individuals in relation to work and careers, and how these may have changed with the events and the economic climate of the past few years.

So what is the best strategy for re-engaging “survivors”?  The answer includes explaining the actions taken, and providing information about the amount of support given to those who have had to leave.  Enrol their former colleagues in providing some of this support.  Invest more heavily in team building and the sponsorship of creativity in addressing business challenges.  Communicate openly and frequently, and at a personal level, in a dialogue about the direction of the organisation – and be honest and transparent if more change is likely.  And, pay particular attention to high performers, those in whom you have made a significant past investment.  Engage them quite directly in leading the organisation into new markets and new ways of working.[ii]


[i] I found this reference in “Downsizing is not what it is cracked up to be”, and article by Henry Hornstein in the June 2009 edition of the May/June 2009 edition of the Ivey Business Journal
[ii]  Some of these observations were found in “After Layoffs. Help Survivors be more Effective”, by Anthony J Nyberg and Charlie O Trevor, June 2009 HBR