In most business cultures, emotional considerations are thought of as secondary to the objective research, data and processes that drive decision-making. The ability of your organization to successfully deselect and align, however, will require more than just diagnostics, decision charts and workflows. It will take the clarity, communication and conviction by leadership to embed the need to change within the culture of your organization.

The emotions associated with deselection, especially in the early stages of the process, usually skew towards the negative. Anger, fear and confusion are common sentiments that people experience when faced with uncertainty. These reactions are natural and to be expected, yet they can be managed and alleviated through effective communication, employee engagement, transparency and well-prepared leadership. While these may seem obvious, many organizations undergoing realignment and transformation do not properly address the related emotions – potentially impacting morale, the organization’s reputation and the bottom line.

As you read through the stories below, keep in mind how you’ve addressed similar challenges before – could you have communicated more effectively with your associates who were most impacted by the process? Did you bring a diverse group of stakeholders along the journey or was the hard work done by a subset of your organization?

“Without Us, It’s The New Yrok Times”: Managing Frustration During a Time of Change

The newspaper industry has experienced more layoffs, consolidations and realignments than most other industries over the last fifteen years. On June 28th, hundreds of New York Times (NYT) staff members walked out of their offices to protest the elimination of the stand-alone copy desk, a team that includes more than 100 copy editors. NYT’s justification is to streamline the editing process so the organization can be faster and more agile when news breaks. While it is unclear whether this change will be effective, the process (as demonstrated by employee response) has had a negative impact on the newspaper.

In a letter to leadership asking that they rethink their decision, the copy editors tried to explain the emotions they were experiencing, reflected in statements such as:

  • “We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times.”
  • “After…an internal report that called for the elimination of ‘low-value editing’ and made it all but clear which stages of editing this referred to”
  • “Morale is low throughout the newsroom [and many of us] from editors to reporters to photo editors to support staff, are angry, embittered and scared of losing our jobs.”

While the NYT will need to transform, it has not effectively addressed the emotional impact deselection is having on its staff. While the reaction to leadership eliminating something is usually not this public or at this scale, anger can develop when an individual or team feels overlooked and disconnected from the process. Leadership needs to engage employees by demonstrating they understand the impacts of the transformation, inviting key stakeholders to the table throughout the entire journey and balancing tough decisions with respect and empathy.

Nothing to Fear? Breaking the Standard of Long Hours in the Japanese Workplace

Employees typically fear deselection for two reasons: it may impact their reputation or result in repercussions on their work. Regarding reputation, employees often encounter a stigma associated with pushing back or giving up projects, fearing they will be perceived as unwilling to take on new work – especially when a colleague may jump at the (potentially misaligned) opportunity. At one Tokyo-based public relations firm, Sunny Side Up, many employees refused to leave work early one Friday a month (called “Premium Friday”) despite being encouraged by the company and Japanese government (and getting paid) to do so. Employees may also fear that the elimination of a project, product or process will lead to them no longer being considered an expert in their field, altering their workplace identity.

The fear of repercussion can also lead to push back against the process. There is fear that deselection may only add responsibilities, through additional meetings, diagnostics and analyses, and the actual elimination of processes or projects will not occur. Additionally, it may have direct repercussions on an employee’s workplace performance. Elimination or changes to a product or service could make it more difficult for teams to meet their performance metrics, raise concerns with customers and partners and lead to layoffs of colleagues that you have known for years.

Effective communication and a demonstrable commitment to the process are key to alleviating this fear. If leaders can effectively signal that there is a light at the end of the tunnel (which means you have a strategy to get there!), morale will likely be stronger, despite a larger workload in the short run. By communicating the goals of deselection and the impact leaders expect it to have, you can create greater buy-in and ease uncertainty.

Finally, commitment to the process can help reduce the fear your organization may face. Leading by example (one employee at Sunny Side Up said they would only leave earlier if their boss did), sitting down with employees or rewarding those who successfully deselect (or have made serious efforts to do so) can help to eliminate the fear that saying “no” to misaligned activities will impact employees’ workplace reputations or result in repercussions.

Rebuilding Blocks: Alleviating Confusion During Times of Change

When you begin to transform or eliminate parts of your business, employees will often feel confused and uncertain about the direction of the organization and their own personal and professional growth. Transparency by leadership can help manage the ambiguity. While the problem and the recommended solution may seem obvious, all types of organizations have attempted to restrict deselection to leadership or a small task force alienating staff members, hurting their reputation and negatively impacting operations in the process.

When Lego was amid its amazing turnaround, going from the verge of bankruptcy to the biggest toy company in the world, CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp knew difficult times were coming – including selling off misaligned product lines (clothing, video games, movies), closing factories, and laying off employees. To help manage the uncertainty around realignment, Knudstorp visited factory employees (spending 40 hours each year visiting the five shifts of factory workers), providing warnings about layoffs and offering retraining.

When discussing how he dealt with employee concerns during this time, he responded “[The employees] were asking: What does the future look like? Of course, I couldn’t guarantee it. But I could show I care for them. Being honest and transparent is important for morale.”

In Connecticut, the majority of workers, despite being laid off, remained on the job to help unwind operations at the Lego factory, a degree of loyalty that Lego likely wouldn’t have experienced if Knudstorp wasn’t as forthcoming.

This is the fourth post in a five-part blog series that examines the cultural barriers to deselection. They include the impacts of ownership, identity, emotion, habit and collaboration on the ability of an organization to deselect, align and increase capacity. The first post provides an overview of deselection and why the cultural aspects of it are important.

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