Still Firing, but with feeling

Just like the sending and receiving of Christmas cards, the distribution of pink slips or redundancy notices terminating employment within any company is a ritual that follows complex rules. Nevertheless, firing triggers powerful feelings of anxiety and exclusion, providing managers with some of their toughest communication challenges.

The firing process can be outsourced and impersonalised, as caricatured in the 2009 recession-era movie Up in the Air starring George Clooney. But the truth is that – just as Clooney’s own character discovers – there needs to be emotional intelligence on both sides of the table.

George Clooney

George Clooney: “Up in the Air” shows emotional intelligence needed on both sides.

The learning is that those managers viewing softer attributes of empathy and collaboration as a dangerous quagmire, will find that a little more heart and less head will make a naturally painful process run smoother. The very drive and self-assurance that put these managers in the driving seat, can prove counter-productive on dismissal day.

Firing individuals one-to-one is never easy; yet what’s harder is leading the departmental ‘Town Meeting’ that follows. Then, those leaving the company must be brought toward public acceptance of their fate, while the survivors are consoled and then re-energised around a shared purpose.

Frequently, it all goes wrong. Instead of surgically cutting away dead wood, managers may unwittingly blast a hole below the wider staff engagement waterline, leaving valued employees disconsolate and ready to follow out of the door those earmarked for firing. Tribal feelings of anger, fear and resentment are aroused.

Such meetings typically start by managers citing the major changes to macroeconomic circumstances or company strategy, which provide an impersonal and objective rationale for the dismissals. Yet such approaches frequently backfire, when survivors display photographic recall of recent and glowing management promises about the very departments or personnel now being axed. If things can indeed change so fast, these survivors feel justified in sensing insecurity on their own account.

Next, it’s natural for energetic managers to seek to hurry the survivor group onwards to address their new challenges, confident they’ll soon get over the news of their colleagues being dismissed. But once again, objectivity can be counter-productive. Teams need time to readjust, to heal through a messy, cathartic process of grumbling and complaint, before a new group dynamic asserts itself. Management anxiety to “move on” without pausing to listen or give the group ample time to restructure can trigger quite rebellious responses.


badly handled firings can spark a silent insurrection

Indeed, if the task is executed with poor people management and leadership skills, the outcome can turn insurrectionary, with survivors questioning the judgement, management skills, and even corporate strategy they’re supposed to be following.

The presence of an HR professional assigned to ensure the firing process follows legal guidelines can further exacerbate emotions, if the promises of “consultations” and “dialogue” are seen as powerless and insincere by those heading out of the door.

So how can all this be done differently? Labour market flexibility is essential to advanced capitalism, which offers a voice but not a vote to employees. Companies must move people on – yet they must also make a better job of this, if they are to be employers of choice for an increasingly discerning workforce.

Mostly, the root cause is emotional intelligence – or its lack – among line managers whose measurable successes have all been attributable to their drive and self-assertiveness, and their power of persuasion. If managers are themselves taking the harsh decisions to fire colleagues, they can’t just outsource the necessary empathy and collaboration to HR professionals. They need to work on developing those listening skills themselves, in order to project a more rounded and authentic persona.

A “stern persuader” persona like this one may lack the skills to handle firings with finesse.

And – let’s be honest – to manage fear. Confidence can take us all a long way – yet it’s not quite the same as competence when it comes to people skills. To secure the engagement that is the true mark of leadership, it’s necessary to dig deeper.

This calls for training in the “soft stuff” of leadership – which is really the hard stuff. Re-learning how to use skills left unused during a lifetime of bad communication habits takes time – and demands authenticity. Because each person has his or her unique mix of projection styles and energies, no cookie cutter approach will fit.

A quite different approach is to map, measure and then manage the communication skills we do possess. This process will reveal the extent and range of the empathy and collaboration skills even quite dogmatic or forthright managers will carry concealed within them.

Communicate Charisma is a unique tool designed to map communications competencies using a simple online test, offering users a comprehensive personal development methodology designed to enhance responsible influence in every sphere. You can read more about of programmes and workshops here. The chart above is one example of Communicate Charisma assessment test results.

You may never hand out pink slips with the panache of George Clooney – but you can certainly do the job in a way that lets you sleep easy at night – and ensures quality candidates continue to clamour for any future vacancies your business has to offer.


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