From Free Fall to a Smoother Flight: Why Leadership Training Before Layoffs Matters

The most effective organizations equip their leaders to nurture a vibrant culture that remains steady no matter what the future holds.


What gives first-time skydivers or bungee jumpers the confidence to free fall in the sky? These intrepid adventurers not only have complete trust in their safety equipment, but their trainers have also prepared them well.

In recent weeks, a spate of corporate layoffs is making many employees feel like these first timers, searching for firm ground as their colleagues suddenly depart. What is the virtual parachute that will lift them up and forward? It’s transparent and inspiring guidance from expertly trained leaders.

Effective leadership training before a layoff is as important as buttoning down the legal details. Why? Although extremely painful, layoffs are often essential for keeping a company on a positive growth trajectory. But that’s challenging when shellshocked employees are missing former colleagues, burdened with new responsibilities, and wondering, “What does this layoff mean to me? Am I next?”

Moving Toward Greatness

Determined to preserve their positions, these team members are watching and listening to their leaders, never like before—trying hard to read the tea leaves. The leaders, in turn, have a chance to gradually re-energize their colleagues—engaging them to embrace their organization’s existing or new mission, own their performance, and elevate their organization toward greatness.

What will determine their success? Their level of training—and not just for the immediacies of layoff scenarios. Any company built to last assumes it could face downsizing at some point. The most effective organizations equip their leaders to nurture a vibrant culture that remains steady no matter what the future holds.

Research consistently indicates that the right culture will bolster their momentum. For example, a 1992 Harvard Business School study of 200 companies showed that those with robust cultures delivered a 756 percent increase in net income over 11 years, compared to a 1 percent increase among others.

Closing the Leadership Gaps

But to steward this kind of culture, leaders’ actions must resonate with their people throughout every economic fluctuation. Training can help individuals—even those who have never held a supervisory role—to develop the appropriate skillset.

Conversely, layoffs widen the leadership cracks when companies don’t provide this education months or years in advance. Following downsizing, leaders need to approach every team interaction with grace, love, and care—validating the significance and sadness of the immediate event, handling questions with honesty and transparency, and guiding everyone toward new measures of success.

Equipping leaders to be 100 percent effective will make the difference between employees who want to continue giving an organization their all and those who don’t trust their companies and want greener pastures. Research indicates that at a typical company, 76 percent of employees are “up for grabs” even when layoffs aren’t occurring. In an economy experiencing tremendous job growth, companies that are reorganizing must prevent that talent flight.

Fostering Self-Understanding

What training will best enable leaders to become the Pied Pipers everyone wants to follow? Education is most productive when it helps leaders:

  • Understand who they are as executives and as people
  • Motivate and communicate with their teams
  • Bring people together
  • Build trust

Great leaders also exude clarity, purpose, and confidence. They earn respect by setting and living up to clear goals and expectations; communicating and collaborating well with others across the enterprise; and managing change and resistance with calm, focus, and strength.

These executives and managers focus on their targets and masters of their mindset. They also take ownership of individual and team outcomes, embody corporate values through their actions, communicate with impact, and prioritize everyone’s continued development—all to drive change.

Leadership training programs should focus on their honing the above characteristics and can be enhanced by:

Workplace personality assessments that identify leaders’ and team members’ natural strengths and workplace drivers.

These assessments help leaders adjust their styles and communication preferences, individual by individual—understanding that the public praise and appreciation that one team member craves could be embarrassing to another, who would rather be rewarded with a more challenging assignment.

Self-awareness exercises: Leaders might ask team members, “What’s my warning label?” That not only helps them avoid inadvertently hurting someone, it makes them human and vulnerable. By letting down their hair (within boundaries), they give their teams permission to open up and be imperfect, too.

Experiential learning: New skills don’t become habits automatically—they can take 21, 66, or more days to be fully ingrained, according to various studies. Leaders who have the opportunity to repeatedly practice new skills through work assignments—with the direction and ongoing coaching of skilled trainers and mentors—are likelier to internalize them and course correct along the way.

None of this will make the fall to earth from a layoff less wrenching when it happens. But with well-trained leaders, organizations’ performance will someday take flight once more.

Casey Cunningham
Casey Cunningham is CEO/Founder of XINNIX: The Academy of Excellence, a premier leadership, operations and sales performance company. The firm has won 25 workplace culture awards and helped thousands of brands build high-performing companies that people want to be part of—translating into more disciplined operations, motivated staff and increased revenues.