How to ease employee fears during a restructure

by Cameron Edmond15 Aug 2013

Abel Lenz, creative director at AOL-owned news platform Patch, was fired on Friday during a conference call about the organisation’s restructuring.

Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, spoke to the employees of Patch on Friday, attempting to increase morale after announcing a shrinking of Patch from 900 to 600 websites.

During the call – which was posted online by media business blog Romenesko - Armstrong reassures his employees of his focus on Patch.

Reportedly, Lenz – who was in the room with Armstrong during the call – was taking a photo of him. The CEO then stated: “Abel put that camera down right now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.”

After a brief pause, Armstrong resumed his pep-talk, encouraging Patch’s employees of AOL’s focus on them.

Since the incident, Armstrong has apologised for his outburst, but did not rescind the termination.

The incident highlights the need to maintain employee morale during periods of uncertainty and change – such as restructures, mergers, and leadership changes. Many employees may become anxious and fearful during these turbulent times, but experts suggest there are methods to decrease this stress.

Sue Tsigaros and Peter Web, directors of The Principal Structure, outlined three human needs –  status, social relationships and security – which, if addressed properly, can ease the turmoil felt during times of uncertainty.

Status refers to the need for power and recognition, with a fear of failure and shame. Employees who value status highly may fear losing benefits such as company cars, travel, business lounge or colleagues moving to other teams.

Those who value social relationships fear isolation and abandonment. In organisational change, they may be afraid of their friendships fading, and losing touch with co-workers they have formed strong bonds with.

Security is fairly self-explanatory, and refers primarily to job security, as well as maintaining the supportive group of workers they have become accustomed to.

Key HR takeaways

While these three needs exist in all workers, some gravitate towards one or two – so all three areas must be addressed. The Principal Structure offered some pointers to allow organisations to help ease the anxiety of change:

  • Neutralise the impact: It is important to acknowledge that a difficult period may be coming, but also reassure staff that careful attention to detail can ensure the impact is beneficial.
     
  • Use positive metaphors: As minor as it may sound, language is important. When discussing the changes with staff, avoid equating it to a ‘battle’ or ‘struggle’, for example.
     
  • Develop short-term goals: Goals and checkpoints that can easily be reached by teams are important in keeping morale and confidence high, as well as rolling-out the changes at a steadier pace.
     
  • Take stock: Does your team have all the necessary resources, facilitators, technology and trainers? Sometimes increasing resources in certain areas is necessary to help facilitate major changes.
     
  • Demonstrate new structure: Don’t just focus on reassuring employees everything will be alright. It is important to show them examples of how things will soon be working to allow them to realise the potential in the change.
     
  • Embrace resistance: Allowing employees to comment on what they like and don’t like about the changes is important. This may simply provide an outlet for them, or it may reveal avenues that should be explored.

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