Several years ago I interviewed many, many professionals who had been laid off in the Great Recession of 2008. I was trying to understand what they'd learned as a result of the experience, why some were stuck after the layoff, while others were moving on or even thriving. What led to those differences?
A lot of my work as a coach continues to be shaped by what I found in those long-form interviews. And I’ve learned that whether I’m working with leaders who are delighted or devastated by what’s happening at work, many of the lessons are universal and timeless.
With layoffs part of our current economic reality these days, I’ve been reflecting again on what I learned ten years ago that may be of service to all of us now:
1. There is no single way 'it goes'.
Most people expect to be flattened by the experience of layoff – taken by surprise, devastated, saddened, scared. Many of us have exactly this reaction.
Still, many other people I talk with have come to see a layoff as an inevitable bump that may happen in a long career, or maybe even as a positive experience: a relief, a wakeup call, an event that propels them in a direction they might not have taken on their own. This response can feel unexpected.
Comparison is the thief of joy most of the time, even in the hard times. There's no better way or right way to handle the experience of losing a job. You don’t have to listen to someone who says: “Don’t let it get to you, it’s a function of the times,” any more than you have to listen to someone who says, “You’ll be fine, look at your resume!” or “What a blessing, you complained about that job all the time.”
You can tune those voices out, and use the energy to tune into yourself. What are you feeling? How are you making sense of this event? What scares you, excites you, frustrates you about all of this? What do you think your first next step might be? (Keep reading...)
2. Most of us can get better at accepting help. And help counts.
There are wonderful people offering all kinds of support right now – spend just a few minutes online in the days following a layoff announcement to see offers for connections, coffee chats, and networking.
Many leaders and professionals I work with have a mixed relationship with asking for help. Simply said, most of us can afford to get better at both asking for AND accepting meaningful help.
I find that it's usually easy enough for most to ask for technical help: "Will you give my resume a once-over?", or "Yes, I’d be happy to take the introduction to so-and-so", or "Could you send me the name of that interview coach you liked". This kind of help is important. Ask for it.
It’s far more unlikely, though arguably more impactful, that we ask for the vulnerable-making thought partnership and emotional support that moves us forward after layoff. This looks like asking someone to brainstorm with you to re-imagine blending your prior experience with a foggy but compelling idea of new work that excites you. It means saying to someone: “You offered to give me some feedback on what it’s like to work with me – can we do that? I’m willing to listen.” Or, it’s about asking a friend to give you love and presence, to sit with you AND your strong feelings, because that’s what you really need right now.
And, I’m talking about getting better at accepting the deeper help people are willing to give you –letting them in to support you as you grapple, to sit in awkward silences with the anger and the tears and frustration, to hear the sh**ty first draft of what you’re thinking of next.
This latter part can be hard. For so many reasons I talk about often, many of us experience embarrassment and shame when work hasn’t worked out. We carry stories about w
hat it means about us that we were laid off, or fired, or overlooked. And as painful as it is to go through it, it can feel even more painful to imagine some else witnessing our discomfort. We worry about being judged, or feeling helpless, or taking without having something to give in return.
Yes. Yes, it can be challenging. By now we all know #wecandohardthings, and we know from the research that these steps of asking for and accepting help themselves are part of what leads people to thrive after layoff. (Keep reading...)
3. Action matters, a lot.
One of the uplifting findings of my original research is that even when people feel angry, or worried, or uncertain, the constructive, purposeful actions they take move them closer to thriving. We can act our way into momentum, into change, and progress. If you’ve been impacted by layoff (and even if you haven’t) the good news is that you can craft intentional, even small steps, and see not only the results of an enhanced mood, a new professional contact, or an idea for a project, but also build your self-efficacy and confidence as you go.
I’ll never minimize what can be great pain after a layoff, and I’ll never stop believing there is a way to recover from the experience, too. Let me know how you’re doing, and how I can help.
Some places I’ve shared more of what I learned about layoff:
Unleashed Podcast: Recovering From A Career Setback