Firing someone is never easy. Of course, it’s likely hardest for the person being fired, but it can also be hard for the person doing the firing, for the team, and sometimes for the organization.
Because firing people is uncomfortable on many levels, it can get messy. Legal constraints on what information can be shared with the team, the absence of details might cause the team might feel confused, angry, or blame the manager or the organization. The team might also feel the loss and not know how to process it, especially if leadership wants to gloss over it. If there are multiple firings in a short amount of time, it can create a culture of fear in which everyone walks on eggshells and wonders if they might be next. When psychological safety is threatened, it can have serious impacts on morale, productivity, and trust. Therefore, it’s important to address the issues head-on instead of shutting people down or avoiding conversations.
If you are a manager in this situation, the following are some things to consider to preserve psychological safety amongst your team:
- Be mindful of what you say.
There are varying opinions around what can legally be shared with others in the organization, but the general rule of thumb is to not say anything about why the person was let go. In addition to legal concerns, this is important to protect the person’s privacy while also modeling how things would be handled if another team member was fired. If they see you handle the situation poorly, they might wonder if you’d do the same to them in a similar situation.
- Handle your stuff.
Process your own fears, feelings, or anything else that might interfere with your ability to hold space for constructive engagement. If you are uncomfortable with conflict (as most of us are), prepare yourself for having difficult conversations. Model how to be present and engage instead of shying away or shutting things down. Strong leadership can bring calm, stability, and trust that will not only help the team move forward but also grow in the process. If you have had challenges with these conversations in the past or anticipate that you might have challenges, start working on these skills now instead of waiting for the situation to arise.
- Read the team.
The culture, size of the team, relationships, and other factors can determine how to handle the situation. In some cases, all the team needs to know in order to move on is that the person is no longer with the company. In others, the team might have concerns, emotions, or uncertainty around how to move forward. Instead of jumping to action, pause to observe and listen to what’s being said, along with your knowledge of the team, in order to determine what would help the team move forward.
- Lean in.
Instead of pretending not to notice the team’s reaction, avoiding engagement, or pushing the team to talk, engage based on where the team is at. Although there’s no need to have long, drawn-out conversations, get to the heart of the matter quickly by using powerful questions such as:
- What’s hard for you about this?
- What are your concerns?
- What do you need from me? From each other?
- How would you knowing more about the situation help you? (use this question if people ask for more details to get the root of what they really need)
These questions can surface underlying fears, concerns, and needs. Ask follow-up questions to dig deeper. Focus on what the team needs rather than making it about the person who left. As much as possible, hold space to support the team instead of siding with or diminishing them.
- Remain open and available.
In order to move past their discomfort, managers might take a one-and-done approach and assume that one conversation is enough. However, this is rarely the case. Although there’s no need to force the issue, remain receptive and observant. Notice if the team or individuals seem impacted and follow up if you sense that things are off. If people continue to bring forth concerns, continue to lean in and discuss them. Whether it’s a few hours or a few months later, demonstrate that you are there for whatever the team needs. If concerns persist, it’s likely that you haven’t yet gotten to the root of what’s impacting them or what they really need. If so, continue to listen and ask questions to find out what’s really going on instead of trying to tell them that there’s nothing to worry about.