Managing Complex Change: How to Lead Through Layoffs

PUblished on: 

June 7, 2022

Updated on: 

Written by 

Lucy Georgiades

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Changing the status quo is inevitable - and often, it can be difficult to manage. Downsizing is one type of change that can be especially challenging for managers and leaders. But by understanding the effective change management strategies, you can be better prepared to lead your people through difficult times.

Elevate’s 3-Step Change Management Model

Step 1: Get Yourself On Board

As a manager and a leader, you must first accept and navigate the shift before attempting to bring others along. Your team will take their cues from you. If you’re feeling resistant to the change, it will be difficult for you to lead them through it.

Our model's focus, therefore, is to get yourself on board with the change first. Ask the necessary questions so you understand the change inside out.

Some questions that can help are:

  • What's the goal of the change and why?
  • What are the timelines?
  • What does this mean for me and my team?

Then, find the positive. We know it’s incredibly hard to ‘find the positive’ when your company is letting go people. Layoffs are brutal.

Having said that, the team that’s left behind will need your positivity. Some examples of positives could be that the company secured 24 months of runway, reacted quicker than competitors, or had renewed focus.

You have to find these positives and they have to feel genuine to you if you're going to get others on board.

As Charles Kettering, the American inventor says, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”

So think about where the progress in the change is for you.

Also, get super clear on what leadership wants you to say and what you’re not allowed to say. Speaking to leadership can also help you feel more comfortable with the change.

In short, to get yourself onboard first, you need to:

  1. Ask the necessary questions
  2. Find the positive in it that is genuine to you
  3. Get clear on what the leadership wants you to say and not to say

Looking for a change management workshop that’s interactive, actionable, and scalable to any organization size?

Sign up to Elevate’s free trial and get access to Change Management Training Plan, a collection of 5-10 minute videos teaching the most critical change management skills.

Get Access to Change Management Learning Path

Step 2: Get Your Team On Board

This is the most difficult step: breaking the news to your team. Remember that the way you say things is just as important as what you say. The words, tone, and facial expression you use will determine how your employees feel the change.

But before you bring the news to your team, there are two things you need to do.

  1. Check in with HR to see if they have a process to deliver the news. If not and you get to decide, it's usually best to deliver the news to the whole group instead of individually. This is because bad news travels fast, so it’s important that the team hears the same message at the same time.
  2. Write down the points you need to deliver. Make a note of the facts you need to say and cannot say. Also, anticipate questions that you might get from your team and prepare the answers for them.

When breaking the news to your team, do these 3 steps.

  1. First, set the scene and get straight to the point. Say, "This is going to be hard news and we are all going to react differently.” Then, just dive into what the change is, why it’s happening, and what it means to you and the team. After that, take a pause so people can digest the information. Do not start with other topics because your team will be focused on that instead, which is not what you want.
  2. Second, give them room to process and ask questions. Once your team finds out about the downsizing, each of them will react differently. Most of them will be shocked or frightened. After a while, they will start asking questions about the change. This is where the note you prepared comes in handy.
  3. Third, help each person in your team process the change individually. As we've said, each person will react to the downsizing differently. That's why it's best to set up 1:1s with them to really check in. Start the 1:1 with "I imagine the layoffs might have brought a mix of thoughts and emotions. I'm happy to talk it through with you. Now that it's been a few days, how are you feeling?”

TIP: If a question catches you off-guard and you don't have an answer, write the question down so they feel heard. Then, ask leadership for the correct answer. It's better to write it down and get the facts than give an answer you’re not 100% sure about.

A helpful change management framework to help your team members process the change better is the Kubler-Ross Change Curve.

Kübler Ross Change Curve

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve consists of the 6 stages of emotions experienced by a person going through change. These stages are not linear and a person may experience different stages at different times.

Let’s go through each stage briefly.        


Shock & Denial: There’s initial disbelief that this is happening to them and often a wish that it wasn’t!

Frustration: When the person understands the gravity of the change, they may feel angry and look for someone or something to blame (including themselves).

Depression: The person feels depressed or anxious after understanding the impact of the change and the uncertainty that comes with change.

Acceptance: When the person realizes that they have to adapt, they’ll start to be more solution oriented.

Integration: The person is now operating from the new reality.

How do you use the Kübler-Ross Change Curve?

When your direct reports are sharing how they’re feeling in your 1-1s, you might say something like, “It’s totally okay to be upset. We’re all human. We go through lots of emotional states when we experience change.” Then show them the change curve and ask them where they feel they are at the moment.

The goal is for them to see where they are emotionally at and recognize that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling.

Make sure they don’t judge their reactions and make rash decisions based on those emotions. Though they may feel angry or frightened now, that’s not necessarily their end state.

Lastly, you need to be authentic. If you know the change is going to be tough, you can call that out. Like “I know this change is going to be hard and it's going to affect us in different ways.” Doing this will help your team feel more comfortable sharing how they really feel about the change.

In summary, to get your team onboard, you'll need to:

  1. Check in with HR to confirm the change delivery method
  2. Write down the points of what to say, what not to say, etc.
  3. Set the scene and get straight to the point
  4. Give room to process the information and ask questions
  5. Help each person in your team process the change individually
  6. Be authentic and share what you feel

Get more tips on Change Management Best Practices that managers and people leaders use to lead through change.

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Step 3: Proactively Monitor Your Team's Reactions

Like I've said, people don't go from shock to integration instantly. It's an ongoing process that takes time. People can go from depression back to anger and frustration. It's your job to tow the party line throughout the downsizing process and help your team reach the 'integration' point.

Here are 3 ways to monitor your team's reactions and lead them into integration:

  1. Create more time and space for people to express themselves. A Gartner report suggested addressing negative emotions openly helps people deal with change. Whether in team meetings or 1:1s, block sufficient time for people to express their emotions and opinions and ask questions about the change.
  2. During your 1-1s, really check in with your reports. Set the scene with, “Before we start, I’d really like to check in and see how you are doing with all the change.” Then stop and let them speak.
  3. Work closely with your direct reports to identify roadblocks or bumps associated with the change and create strategies to remove them to the extent possible.

Free Change Management Training Plan

Being a manager when you and your team are going through change is hard. Elevate’s managing complex change model and the Kübler-Ross Change Curve will give you the help you need and some language to use navigating through this tricky time.

The Change Management Training Plan consists of 5 to 10-minute interactive videos showing managers how to:

  • Manage through change
  • Help others feel heard
  • Let someone go with grace
  • Have a career conversation
  • Be empathetic
  • Ask great quality questions

All of which are essential skills managers need to have while managing through complex change.

Lucy Georgiades

Founder & CEO @ Elevate Leadership

In London and Silicon Valley, Lucy has spent over a decade coaching Founders, CEOs, executive teams and leaders of all levels. She’s spent thousands of hours helping them work through challenges, communicate effectively, achieve their goals, and lead their people. Lucy’s background is in cognitive neuropharmacology and vision and brain development, which is all about understanding the relationships between the brain and human behavior. Lucy is an Oxford University graduate with a Bachelors and a Masters in Experimental Psychology and she specialized in neuroscience. She has diplomas with distinction in Corporate & Executive Coaching and Personal Performance Coaching from The Coaching Academy, U.K. She also has a National Diploma in Fine Art from Wimbledon School of Art & Design.