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Emotional Intelligence, Strategic Thinking, and Layoffs

| June 2, 2020

by Jack Wolfe

Emotional Intelligence, Strategic Thinking, and Layoffs

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is a collaboration with Jack Wolfe, MOR Associates Senior Consultant and Executive Coach, and Rick Fredericks MOR Associates Program Leader and Leadership Coach.  Jack may be reached at [email protected] and Rick at [email protected]]

This past week MOR wrapped up two pilot offerings for our MOR alumni community, Practice Groups. Each of these two six-month experiences focused on evolving a different competency: Emotional Intelligence and Strategic Thinking. When we set off on this experiment we had no idea the importance of these two competencies during this time. Recently the two leads for these pilot offerings – Jack Wolfe and Rick Fredericks – spoke about the importance of these areas, the balance of practicing them together, and per many requests we have received, relating them to the challenge of potential layoffs on the road ahead.  Special thanks to Sean McDonald and David Sweetman for the questions and facilitation that structured Jack and Rick’s responses.

Emotional Intelligence

As a quick refresher, Rick reminds us that emotional intelligence starts with awareness.  This includes both awareness of our own feelings and reactions as well as those of others.  Once we have achieved awareness, we can then take steps to manage those feelings and reactions both in ourselves and in others.  By being able to understand, label, and express the feelings we are experiencing, we are then able to create counter-measures to move past difficult times. Further, in expressing these feelings ourselves we are more fully able to connect, empathize, and support others.  This empathy is especially important as we seek to create emotional stability and equilibrium in times of uncertainty.

Strategic Thinking

Jack reminds us that “you cannot make up in tactics that which you lack in strategy.”  In retrospect, much of these past few months may have felt very tactical as we responded to transitioning to a virtual environment.  However, more than ever, we need to push ourselves to climb the stairs from that overwhelming urgency to “get up on the balcony” to be strategic in seeing the big picture and visualizing the future.  This includes both the short-term of our fall semesters as well as the longer-term of our campuses post-COVID vaccine.  In both the short-term and the long-term, we need to separate the impactful from the not-so-impactful and focus on where we can add the greatest value.

Empathy for Strategic Results

Which is more important?  The warmth of emotional intelligence in meeting people where they are in their own unique journey?  Or the stretching and challenging results of a strategic focus?  Both are needed, with emotional intelligence being slightly more important.  As Jack elaborates: if there is an emotional wall between two people, if they can’t have the right kind of conversation to move a strategy forward, the strategic will fail.  Strong relationships are a precursor to effective strategy.  Caring and listening helps us to move forward together.  Empathy provides a foundation for focusing on strategic results.


As tracked by the Chronicle for Higher Education, roughly 50,000 furloughs, layoffs, or reductions in force have occurred in higher education since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of us are living these experiences currently.  Layoffs are a difficult time for everyone involved, whether a person is the subject of the changes, or a person is involved in the management of the process.  

Layoffs from a strategic perspective

If we find ourselves needing to plan for layoffs, Jack offers us three strategic objectives to consider.  First, preserve your strategic activities. What are the most strategically impactful activities of your unit?  What do you need to do to continue providing those activities?  Second, preserve your very best people.  Who are your smartest, nicest, and most adaptable strong performers?  What do you need to do to continue enabling those contributions?  Determining these answers should be a collaborative process involving your leadership team.  These two dimensions can be mapped into a two-by-two diagram as shown below:



High Strategic Impact

Low Strategic Impact

High Contribution

1. Retain

2. Reassign

Low Contribution

3. Reduce

4. Remove

The quadrants are numbered by order of importance, with “4. Remove” being the place to start when needing to undergo cuts, “3. Reduce” being a place to carefully reduce (while reassigning those high strategic impact projects to higher contributors), next “2. Reassign” being a place to refocus high contributing employees on higher strategic impact work, and finally “1. Retain” being a place to avoid layoffs wherever possible for strong performers of highly strategic work.  If we are having a hard time with this analysis, imagine starting fresh with no constraints.  Who would you hire and how would you organize your team to be the most strategic with the best people?

Once we’ve preserved our strategic activities and best people, our third objective is to be fair.  Any process needs to consistently factor in all relevant dimensions, such as seniority, or potential.  Work is a complex social system.  When considering fairness, also spend time considering social maps of impacts and how each individual fits into that mix.

Layoffs from an emotionally intelligent perspective

The uncertainty of layoffs can create a toxic environment.  Rick provides us a framework of three areas of focus to keep emotions as healthy as possible during a period of layoffs:

Principled communication. Ensure your communication is honest, straightforward and consistent.  Facts and projections will forestall rumors.  Leaders should not be provided with a script to read from.  Rather, leaders should be involved in understanding and shaping the principles behind the decisions, and be able to speak fluently to those principles.  Those principles should be informed through our social awareness of the many individuals involved.  Implementing a layoff is an emotional event. It is not a time to commiserate, point out the unfairness of the outcome, or to say “don’t worry it will be fine”.

Managing the emotional impact of a layoff is a campaign, not an event. It requires a plan that may span weeks not days. Self-management matters. Out-of-control emotions will impact the effectiveness of the notification and follow-up. On the flipside, a lack of any emotional affect will demonstrate a lack of care. Balance and consistency matter. The labeling of feelings demonstrates care. “I am saddened by these events”; “I’m frustrated that we couldn’t turn it around…”; “I appreciate the performance of this group” Inappropriate displays of emotion demonstrates lack of control. This includes blaming.

Coaching.  We don’t know what the future holds.  Even before a potential layoff, we should be engaged in coaching that shares with employees what we know and elicits conversation to think about options.  You may witness fear, anger, denial, sadness, or other feelings. It is a good time for empathy.  It is okay to recognize the appropriateness of the other person’s emotions.  Help identify the feeling and normalize the emotional expression.  Additionally, we need to recognize that managers may need coaching and support to move through it, even a step-by-step guide to having these difficult conversations.

Real support for individuals. Social awareness involves understanding the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors of others. Understand that each person’s experience is different, with many different emotions experienced such as negative speculations, anxieties, and a decline in focus and performance.  Provide tangible support services to help those impacted.  Additionally, people will remember the stories you tell them at this point in time. Honesty is essential. It is better to present a hard truth than a soft lie. Leadership behavior at this time is a precursor to the aftermath performance of the group.

Coworkers are intensely impacted by a separation of a peer. They may have emotional responses including anger, guilt, or anxiety about their own future.  Facts and plans going forward are necessary.

Stakeholders, particularly users, should also be considered. They may have strong relationships with the impacted employee or just be uncertain about the future delivery of services.  In-person follow-up may help preserve a relationship that is critical.

Lessons from past layoffs

We next asked Jack and Rick to reflect on their own experiences and coaching regarding layoffs.  In particular, what are some of the common decisions to be made, and considerations for those decisions.

Layoffs versus across-the-board salary reductions.  There are many potential ways to consider budget reductions. Instead of layoffs, an alternative approach is that everyone on a team takes an across-the-board reduction in salary.  A benefit of this approach is that everyone on the team keeps their job, but when faced with the choice of this approach versus layoffs, both Jack and Rick recommend layoffs.  The rationale: by the standard distribution of a bell curve, there are higher performers and lower performers on any team.  By removing the lower performing members of the team, it sends a clear message of validation as strong performers to those who remain.  Finally, by not cutting salary across the board and maintaining fair pay, those remaining on the team are motivated and valued to continue strong contributions, versus being demotivated by a reduction in pay.

Consistent versus variable cuts to departments.  One of the worst things an organization can do in planning reductions is a percentage cut that is consistent across all departments.  While this feels fair and equitable on the surface, this approach fails to acknowledge the question of strategic importance now and into the future.  Those areas of the organization most strategic should be considered for the smallest reductions, whereas areas of less strategic importance should be considered for larger reductions.

Reductions all at once versus spread across time.  Layoffs are a traumatic time.  They can be seen as a pivot point from what is to what will be within the organization.  Layoffs are best done all at once, as opposed to small increments across time.  This provides ready closure to a traumatic time while also reducing the potential of lingering anxiety of wondering if they’ll be the next in a series of reductions over time.

Those left feeling overwhelmed with work.  When layoffs occur, the capacity of the team for work is reduced.  By virtue of this reduction, the workload also needs to be reduced.  Prioritizing work becomes even more important: do, delay, delegate, or dump.  One value of a great strategy is it enables prioritization of efforts.  To help with understanding and commitment, the team should determine those priorities collectively.

Respect and transparency.  There is a balance to be had in respecting the confidentiality of those directly impacted by layoffs, and being transparent to the larger organization.  When done well, the process involves managers and employees in a way that fosters trust and respect.  Middle and front-line managers are empowered to do the right thing.  When not done well, management acts in secrecy, rumors run high, and trust runs low.

Providing support to those let go.  One of the most compassionate things an organization can do in a layoff scenario is to provide support services to those experiencing a layoff.  The specifics will vary depending on organization and could include preference for transfer within the organization, external placement, or counseling services.  Both those let go and those remaining will notice and appreciate this level of compassion.

After layoffs

Going through layoffs is a difficult process for everyone involved.  However, from the embers of that difficulty arise hopes for a stronger future.  What can prove to be one of the most surprising dimensions of layoffs is the increased motivation and increased relationships of a team.  A powerful source of strength and solidarity is in the overcoming of difficult, shared obstacles together.  

Emotional Intelligence and Strategic Thinking are the essences of getting the “Right Things Done” – and that’s why we’re all here! They apply in spades in a layoff situation – protect your most strategic activities; protect your very best people; and conduct your reductions in the fairest and most humane way possible, using each and every Emotional Intelligence skill and tool we can employ. With almost 50,000 higher education employees from 190 institutions already affected in the past two months, we are all likely to be part of far more of this than we wish…The very best wishes of all at MOR are with each of you today.