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Coaching through a wave of redundancies

By Mark McKergow, Centre for Solutions Focus at Work

Published in Coaching At Work, Vol 4 No 6 p 54 (2009)

One unfortunate aspect of the current recession is that organisations, public and private alike, are having to make hard decisions. Sometimes that means redundancies. This can bring pitfalls and opportunities for the far-sighted manager-coach.

Firstly, I hope you are not part of the redundancy programme! If you are, then some kind of outplacement and career counselling might be useful. The purpose of this article, however, is to look at how you might use coaching to help you and your team through a difficult time.

Don't be mindlessly positive

Some people seem to think that solution-focused coaching is positive. Maybe, but never at the expense of respect and acknowledgement. You may have seen various England cricket captains interviewed during the past few years. Following some dreadful drubbing, the captain appears within minutes to mouth platitudes about 'taking the positives' and 'going forwards'. This is a good example of what I call 'mindless positivity' - it may give the illusion of learning, but it smells of thoughtlessness and lack of consideration.

Consider instead the ideas of going slowly, acknowledgement and respect. If there has been an announcement of job losses, people may be shocked, worried and concerned. In my view, this is not the time for alert breeziness and looking on the bright side. As manager you may wish to

  • take time to acknowledge how difficult the situation is
  • take time to hear and respond to whatever is about - frustration, resentment, sadness
  • let people know that you realise that not everything is rosy and that you too would wish things had turned out differently
  • be impressed (genuinely) with how people are handling it all
  • wait, pause, let it sink in

People have many different ways of responding - some may show a stiff upper lip approach and want to get on with things, others may feel saddened at the disappearance of colleagues and friends. Respect and acknowledge all these possibilities.

Change is happening all the time

One of the key ideas in Solution Focused coaching is that 'change is happening all the time - so find useful change and amplify it'. After a short period of acknowledgement, you may well find that something happens to draw the team together again. Work still needs to be done, and perhaps with fewer resources. Customers still need to be serviced. Life will go on. And then you can start to look at how to move on.

Doing yourselves justice

One good coaching question for challenging circumstances is:

Imagine you are looking back on this, walking away... how will you know you have done yourself justice?

I have used this as the basis for some very difficult conversations over the years. It allows people to be frustrated, and yet still puts them in a position of reclaiming their own part in creating the future - both for themselves and for the organisation. Amplify the answers, get the details, ask 'what else?'. Take some time to explore the answers. You may well be surprised at how constructive the discussion can become.

Dr Mark McKergow is director of sfwork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work and co-author of several books on Solution Focused practice including The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2007).