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July – December 2019

Downsizing: How this affects the emotions of the leaders implementing the change

Downsizing How this effects the emotions of the leaders implementing the change

By Leslie William Thomas

  • DEC 2019
22 minutes to read

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Downsizing is difficult

Increased globalisation, fierce competition and an informed consumer base are leading to more organisations implementing measures to ensure they have a competitive advantage, provide value to stakeholders and focus on sustainability. Downsizing is one such strategy.

This study, conducted among participants in a South African liquor company, explored how executioners – those individuals tasked with executing the downsizing – experienced their responsibilities.

How do these corporate leaders cope with the emotional burden of implementing the downsizing? How do they deal with the anxiety, anger, guilt, envy, relief and denial typically associated with this?

There is growing evidence that executioners suffer from similar symptoms as those who are survivors and victims of downsizing even though their experiences differ.

There is growing evidence that executioners suffer from similar symptoms as those who are survivors and victims of downsizing even though their experiences differ.

Why the need to downsize?

Downsizing – also called restructuring, redundancy, delayering or rightsizing – is a change management approach used by many organisations to decrease their number of employees. In the past, downsizing was usually driven by difficult economic times. It has now become a strategy to improve organisational performance because downsizing can help to reduce costs, cut down on bureaucracy, facilitate quicker decision making, encourage entrepreneurship and increase overall profitability.

Themes in understanding the emotional experience of downsizing

What does the literature say about the emotional experience of victims and survivors (and executioners) in the downsizing process? What are the themes deemed important in understanding survivors’ emotional experiences and reactions in this context?

  • Job insecurity: Researchers have shown that job insecurity increases, leading to negative responses that in the long term can harm both the organisation and the individual. Having said this, those leaders who have to execute the downsizing are survivors themselves and are just as much at risk at losing their jobs.
  • Guilt, anxiety, fear and anger: During downsizing and after its conclusion, symptoms such as depression or anger as a result of survivor guilt is a serious concern for downsized organisations. Guilt is created as a result of inequity, motivating survivors “to redress this guilt through behavioural or psychological means”. Some survivors who perceive unfairness in the dismissal of a co-worker may exhibit behaviour like increasing work performance to offset such guilty feelings. Some researchers found that survivors were more task driven post-downsizing and worked harder in order to compensate for these feelings. Other researchers argued that the survivors’ reason for working harder was as a result of them wanting to protect their employment status in the company as they fear the impact of future downsizings and possible job losses. Those executioners who were in a close relationship with victims experienced higher levels of anxiety as opposed to those who executed administrative functions. In extreme cases, managers resorted to committing suicide as living with their guilt was no longer possible.

Why was this study undertaken?

While much has been written about the reactions of survivors and victims, little is known about the emotional experience of those leaders who have to implement the downsizing.

Research on executioners (also called executors, downsizers, downsizing agents, executioners  or implementers) is limited both locally and internationally as studies mostly capture the reactions of victims (those who exit the organisation during the downsizing) and survivors (those who remain in the organisation), or concentrated on the financial and organisational consequences of downsizing.

A review of the literature on this topic shows different views of how survivors’ previous experiences with downsizing affect their perception of, and responses to, later experiences with downsizing. On the one hand, a significant number of North American researchers argued that survivors may benefit from earlier experiences with downsizing as this will help to make them more resilient over time. On the other hand, some management scholars found that experiencing multiple occurrences of downsizing made survivors more vulnerable over time and intensified feelings of stress.

Some researchers found that survivors were more task driven post-downsizing and worked harder in order to compensate for these feelings of guilt.

This study was undertaken to explore the effect of past exposure in downsizing on the emotional experience of those managers who have to implement the downsizing. The research was conducted in a South African firm and sought to confirm the work of Gandolfi (2009) and others in a different geographical setting.

How was the study conducted?

This study sought to capture the real-life experience of those leaders responsible for the planning and execution of downsizing in a large organisation that has first-hand experience of mergers and various waves of downsizing and restructuring.

The sample participants chosen for this study were those leaders who had to implement the structural changes. Qualitative data was obtained through semi-structured interviews with 12 such executioners: five manufacturing managers, two HR executives, two HR managers, one SHERQ manager, one quality manager and one programme manager. The participants had 107 years of combined work experience at management level and an average of four downsizing contacts per individual.

 What did the study find?

Four key themes emerged from the processed data:

  • Proximity to the change: The emotional experience of executioners in downsizing is determined by proximity to the change. Hence, the direct role of executioners in crafting change impacts their experience. Also, the closeness of their relationship with the victims impacted their emotional experience.
  • The impact of past exposure to downsizing: Past experience in downsizing has an influence on the emotional experience of executioners in subsequent downsizings. Past experience impacts their experience from a process perspective.
  • Coping mechanisms: Executioners employ different coping mechanisms to reduce the emotional impact of the change on themselves. These coping mechanisms include emotional, cognitive and physical distancing.
  • The key role of support: Executioners need support to help release emotions as a result of the impact of the downsizing experience. This includes support inside and outside the work environment.

Executioners employ different coping mechanisms to reduce the emotional impact of the change on themselves.

Theme 1: Proximity to the change

The first main theme that emerged from the research was the emotional response of the executioners. While executioners described their roles as emotionally taxing, their experiences varied. The following contributed to the emotional response of and the intensity felt by executioners:

  • Proximity to the emotional aspects (how close in the process they were to victims)
  • The role that executioners play in crafting the business case for change and the decision-making processes
  • The closeness of the relationship to the downsized.

Research showed that executioners who are closer to the epicentre of the emotional aspects as a result of direct contact with the downsizing victims are substantially more exposed to emotional pain. For most of these executioners, the experience was not pleasant. One participant indicated: “It’s never an easy conversation. No matter how many times you do the process, it never gets easier. It is always a dreaded conversation … It is really a combination of feelings from gosh, this person mustn’t commit suicide or do something crazy … so that’s why I think for me seeing that person go through that, you feel emotional and I get teary.”

Executioners who only performed tasks in the background were shielded from exposure to the emotional pain.

Another factor influencing the emotional experience of executioners is the direct role played by the executioner in crafting the change. Many executioners expressed feelings of guilt, sadness, anger, fear anxiety and concern. Most of them described feelings of extreme guilt when they felt that they were responsible for causing the pain and distress in those being downsized.

The closer the relationship with the victim, the more intense the feelings of guilt and sadness felt by the executioner.

The executioners struggled to deal with their emotions during and even after the event when they, by virtue of their role, contributed to the change and decision-making process resulting in others being downsized. The direct role that executioners play in the crafting of change also puts them in an advantageous position of having access to more information. However, they had to keep this information confidential until official announcements were made, and often had to sign non-disclosure agreements. In the absence of information to employees, rumours spread. In the absence of an official story, people made their own story. This led to more anxiety for these executioners. As one participant commented: “The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty is inversely proportional to the amount of information the organisation provides.”

Executioners felt as if they were forced to lie and deceive colleagues. A group of participants felt that some of these actions were not aligned with their values and some executioners struggled with dissonance. Most of the executioners were not comfortable to go about their tasks in a business as usual way, knowing that change was on the horizon.

A further factor influencing the emotional response of executioners is the closeness of the relationship that the executioners had with the victims. The closer the relationship with the victim, the more intense the feelings of guilt and sadness felt by the executioner. Most of the executioners said that it was more challenging to exercise their executioner responsibilities when dealing with employees with whom they had long-standing relationships, or when they knew about these employees’ personal circumstances. As one participant explained: “If you have that bond with a person then it doesn’t matter if it is your first or last time, it is personal.”

Theme 2: The impact of past exposure to downsizing

The role of past experience in carrying out downsizing activities was the second theme that emerged.

Research has shown that survivors who have already experienced downsizing may interpret a more recent downsizing differently from those who never had such an experience before. Veteran employees who have been through downsizing before may, as a result of constant reflection, benefit from coping mechanisms and strategies that they have developed.

On the other hand, some researchers suggested that repeated downsizing episodes had a cumulative negative effect on survivors’ well-being, as the continual fear of potential job loss together with the pressure from an increased workload led to chronic stress over time, which weakened the individual’s mental coping resources. Hence, most survivors do not become resilient after repeated waves of downsizing exposure. Instead, they became more vulnerable.

… some researchers suggested that repeated downsizing episodes had a cumulative negative effect on survivors’ well-being, as the continual fear of potential job loss together with the pressure from an increased workload led to chronic stress.

Participants in this study indicated that past experience in downsizings provided insight into expectations for future downsizings. This allowed them to be better prepared for the process aspects of the change. Some of the participants felt that the preparation and execution of the process trumped any thoughts of the emotional aspects, confirming that previous downsizing experience helped them to be more task focused. One participant noted, “You take the emotion out because you prepare for the process”.

Past experience in downsizing also impacted the way in which executioners prepared themselves for the emotional aspects of the change. Most participants found themselves better skilled to execute the process and better prepared for difficult conversations. As one executioner commented: “So in this final wave of change, it was upsetting, a lot of anxiousness … but I was more prepared for it this time now. I have a better set of skills than I did six years ago … and hence I found myself in a little bit of a better emotional state and psychological state.”

Some, especially among the HR participants, highlighted that over time they became veterans of the process and even a little emotionally distant. Emotionally numb executioners felt less emotionally taxed, allowing them to remain seemingly objective. The likelihood of burnout was found to be higher among survivors of multiple downsizings.

Most of the participants agreed that when other factors – such as relational closeness to the victim and proximity to the emotional aspects of change – are present, delivering the bad news to employees was never easy. What’s more, each situation was unique.

Theme 3: Coping mechanisms

The third theme to emerge was the coping mechanisms used by executioners to deal with the intense emotional aspects of downsizing.

Research has shown that the implementers of downsizing employ various coping techniques to lessen the negative effects of their emotional experiences. This enables them to remain composed and sensitive towards victims during the downsizing.

Executive managers were found to cope better before and during the downsizing than middle managers who used avoidance and disengagement coping strategies. Executive managers applied positive thinking while middle management reflected on their sense of helplessness to control the situation. Executioners also used emotional distancing techniques – such as detached concern (like a doctor who detaches himself from the emotions associated with a situation to make clearer decisions while still being empathetic towards the patient), physical distancing and cognitive reframing (where the individual reframes a negative situation into a positive or at least neutral one).

Most of the executioners said that support outside of the workplace was more available and effective than the support provided by the organisation.

In this study, the executioners used the following distancing reactions to decrease their stress levels:

  • Emotional distancing: To remain objective and feel better prepared for rational decision making during the process, participants sought to disengage emotionally from the process.
  • Cognitive distancing: Executioners also distanced themselves cognitively from the emotional epicentre and the pain caused as a result of their actions. This involved substituting negative aspects of an event with more neutral or positive features. Normalising, denial of injury and perception of justice and fairness were some of the tactics employed by executioners. To try and reduce the feeling of personal responsibility in letting people go, executioners normalised downsizing as necessary to build a sustainable business for the future: “It is positive to create a long-term sustainable business for the greater majority.” Denial of injury is another tactic employed. This is where executioners believe that victims do not suffer hurtful consequences. In this case, some of the executioners believed that the individuals received generous packages and that retrenchment actually led to new opportunities for these individuals. Some participants appeased feelings by suggesting that the process was fair and just, with one participant commenting: “Non-performing and free-riding individuals were exited in an amicable way.”
  • Physical distancing: Some executioners eased their feelings by engaging in physical distancing tactics. As one participant said, “When it comes to the team, after someone has exited the team, everyone has lost someone and they need space to grieve. I then just stay out of their way.”

Theme 4: Different forms of support

A fourth theme that emerged was the need for executioners to have an outlet or avenue of release for the emotions experienced. Most of the participants described a need for a support structure within and outside of the workplace to help them deal the emotions and stress.

Most participants felt that support from peers, colleagues and even line management was not adequate. They agreed that much more work needs to be done to ensure adequate support – like training interventions for the role, and more peer and line management interaction to deal with the emotional aspects of the process.

Most of the participants said that support from family and religious groups were important while some actively engaged in sports and recreational activities. Most of them said that support outside of the workplace was more available and effective than the support provided by the organisation. As one participant said, “I have a good support structure at home … I can talk about stuff with my wife; you know just unload some burden and get a non-judgemental feedback from her, obviously within no disclosure rules.”

Organisations will already do well if they abolish the terms affected and non-affected employees in downsizing and start to realise that everyone is affected in downsizing. The survivor, victim and executioner are all affected by the downsizing activities.

Downsizing affects everyone

The findings of this study illustrated that the work of executioners is emotionally challenging and that there is evidence of survivor syndrome in executioners. Also, participants experience at least the same if not a higher intensity of emotional stress after numerous downsizings. Those at the epicentre of the emotional aspects experience the intensity of emotions more prominently than those who do not come in contact with victims. In addition, when there is a close relational connection with the victim, the emotional stress increases.

This study has shown that previous experience in downsizing does make it easier for executioners to deal with the process. However, too much exposure to downsizing can create a sense of emotional numbing. Emotional numbing together with distancing techniques can reduce stress levels in executioners and make the task more bearable. This coping mechanism may work in the short term. However, it holds risks in the long term. Disconnecting from one’s emotions may lead to long-term physical, mental and emotional issues. Here, relying on support inside the company and especially outside of the workplace can help executioners to process the emotions associated with downsizing.

What should the organisation do?

This study confirms how emotionally strenuous it is for executioners to fulfil their role as downsizing agents and suggests that careful consideration should be given to equip such managers with the right set of skills.

It is recommended that organisations reflect on three areas regarding downsizing: the impact of downsizing on executioners, the effect of the coping mechanisms they use, and the role “veteran” executioners should play in subsequent change initiatives.

In downsizing … people are the first aspect spoken about, but the last group spoken to.

Organisations will already do well if they abolish the terms affected and non-affected employees in downsizing and start to realise that everyone is affected in downsizing. The survivor, victim and executioner are all affected by the downsizing activities. Adequate training needs to be in place to help executioners understand the process side of downsizing as well as the emotional aspects thereof. Executioners should receive training in how to lead others through such change while instilling hope in survivors and victims. In essence, organisations should explore how best to equip executioners with the appropriate technical, emotional and leadership skills for their task.

The findings also highlighted the value of effective communication channels and timeous messaging to lower the emotional stress of executioners. As the researcher observed during this study: People are the first aspect spoken about, but the last group spoken to.

  • This article is based on the research assignment of Leslie William Thomas – an MBA alumnus of USB. The title of his research assignment is: A manager’s experience in corporate liposuction: The effect of past or present downsizing on the emotional experience of leaders who have to implement downsizing.
  • His study leader was Prof Mias de Klerk, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour, Director: Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies (Africa) and Head of Research at USB.
  • Gandolfi, F. (2009). Executing downsizing: The experience of executioners. Contemporary Management Research, 5(2), 185–200.
  • Radcliffe, V. S., Campbell, D. R., & Fogarty, T. J. (2001). Exploring Downsizing: A Case Study on the Use of Accounting Information. Journal of Management Accounting Research, 13, 131–157.

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