HOW TO: Heal after restructure
Updated: Apr 28
How do you relift the morale of existing employees who stay with the team after the restructure? They might be in a new role or the same role - but either way, we often forget to support these ‘survivor employees’ because we are so focused on those people on redeployment or retrenchment. If you truly want to succeed to meet your future vision (the whole point of your restructure in the first place!), you absolutely have to support these people throughout the restructure process and beyond.
I'm Lata Hamilton, Change Leadership and Confidence expert. And this is the final article in my 15-part Reimagine Restructures Blog Series.
Prefer to watch the 5 minute video? Jump over to my Youtube Channel.
"Survivor employees" refers to the people who actually get to retain a role or move into a new role after a restructure. Now, you might actually think that these people should be pretty happy! They kept their role or they have a fantastic new role in the new structure. However, what research has found is that survivor employees - the people who are left behind - can actually carry a lot of negative emotions and a lot of real crises forward into the organisation, because of the organisational change they've been through, and some of the things that they have lost.
Grief and loss
So today we're going to be exploring how to rebuild the morale of those employees. And we're going to be doing it through that lens of grief and loss. If you wait until the restructure's already happened, and the new structure is actually in place and bedded down to focus on the experience of your survivor employees - it's TOO LATE. Everybody is going through the change, and at the start of the change you might not know who are going to be the retained employees, and who are going to be the ones who go and find other opportunities. But what everybody can agree on is that you don't want to be bringing sad, angry, stressed, anxious people into your future vision.
So you need to really think about planning out your restructure well in advance, and putting together a change program that's really going to start supporting them from at least 6 months out. And what I'd recommend is that you actually break it up into 3 month chunks.
3 stages of transition
Your first 3 months would be a pre-transition and really starting to begin this process. The 3 months of during-the-transition where you provide more support, and that's really where a lot of the operational change is going to happen. And then also providing that support for the 3 months post, at a minimum, because survivor employees experienced so much that they still leave after maybe 6 or 12 months. This is the second and third waves after your restructure, potentially up to two years until your restructure is truly finished because of the aftermath.
So, it's really important to start putting a focus on it at the start, and changing the experience for them of their restructure.
We will do this through the lens of the 5 Stages of Grief and Loss, the work of Kubler-Ross and Kessler. And with each of the stages we'll look at some mechanisms and levers that you can pull to shift the experience of the people going through the restructure.
Stage 1: Denial
You’ve got to understand that, for your people, this is going to be rough and raw. The announcement might have just happened, and people are feeling anxious, fearful, and stressed. It’s too early to do team-building exercises and bonding events. So instead, leave an open space and mechanisms for feedback to allow people to work through what's going on, and provide information in a clear, concise and transparent way.
Stage 2: Anger
Here try a letter-writing exercise. A letter allows somebody to have a conversation, but it's actually a conversation with themselves - they just don't realise it. So they can either write a letter to themselves or they can write a letter to somebody else, whoever it is that they want. In that letter they can articulate anything that they're thinking, feeling, and any emotions that's coming up for them. And through this stage of letter writing (this letter isn't actually going to anywhere, it's just a cathartic exercise) to bring what's going on up in their head and down into the physical world and onto paper. And stop it "cycling" through in their head, and then getting stuck in that vortex of thinking.
Stage 3: Bargaining
I use this in different coaching programs that I run. It's a "Like" and a "Don't Like" list. Start with the "Don't Like" list - write out on one side of a page all the things that they don't like about their company. After they've finished that first list, they start thinking about all the things that they DO like about the company, all of the things that have been working, that they really love, and enjoy. And they right that on the other side.
Some people start to see for themselves that maybe this organisation isn't actually for them, and that maybe it is time to move on. And you might not know which survivor employees are going to be retained at the very end, but sometimes people do need to find for themselves whether or not they want to stay in a place or not.
Stage 4: Depression
Again, run them through an exercise all of the things that they think that the company actually did badly, weren't working, the big opportunities or gaps for the company. But then also take them out of that depression – you don't want to leave them there! So get them to think: what would they do to actually change some of those things? What are some ideas that they have to start bringing some positive change into the organisation? So you're getting them to be brutal and be honest, about the place that really does shield them, and really does provide a lot for them, then tap into their ability to contribute to the bigger picture and to a positive future.
STAGE 5: Acceptance
And then finally the 5th stage is the stage of Acceptance. I've seen this done really well with a 1st birthday party. And I think it just goes to show that this journey is not something that you can expect to happen 2 weeks after your structure is bedded down. A first birthday party is 12 months after the structure is bedded down! Alternatively, just create a community. And here's where a lot of the team-building events can really start to happen, from about 3-12 months mark after the new structure has bedded down. Where you really start to create that bonding and create the organisation that people want to really be a part of.
These were just some really fast, quick ideas for you: 5 steps of grief and loss, that you can help your people work through, so that survivor employees don't either leave in waves in the 1-2 years after your restructure, but then also to help you really get your company back performing really fast after such a disruptive change.
My previous blog post “Is Grief Affecting Your Team's Performance?” links to this article - the guilt and disengagement of the staff you keep. Read the partnering article here:
I'm Lata Hamilton - the Founder & CEO of Passion Pioneers, a Change Management consultancy specialising in digital transformation, operating model changes, and new ways of working and leadership.
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