Crucial Skills®

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Help! I Survived a Layoff

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our organization took a hit last year and many people were laid off. I was lucky to stay but now I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and responsibilities that I’m required to do in others’ absence. I don’t want to look like I can’t handle my workload and I especially don’t want to lose my job as a result of my complaints. How should I approach this tricky situation with my boss?

The Survivor

Dear Survivor,

You’re right to consider this a sensitive issue. If, when you leave this conversation, your boss thinks you’re ungrateful to be employed or a pain to have around, you have failed. Next time the ax swings, he or she may well say, “Hmmm . . . ‘Survivor’ seems to want a country club rather than a work place—let’s give him or her a LOT more free time.” That is clearly a bad outcome.

However, there is absolutely no reason you can’t have this crucial conversation—provided you approach it in a way that ensures your boss feels comfortable. In fact, if done right, this conversation will demonstrate even more powerfully why you should be at the bottom of any layoff list.

I highly recommend a new book called Indispensable by Monday written by Larry Myler. Larry’s research suggests there are fourteen behaviors that bosses prize highly in employees and that make them terribly reluctant to let these employees go. The good news is that the list of fourteen does not include sucking up, maintaining appearances, or “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” While these advantages may make a marginal difference, the most prized behavior for any employee comes when . . . drum roll . . . they bring in much more money than they cost.

Now, I’m not going to go into all the details of how any employee can have profit impact—irrespective of whether they are in a direct revenue role or a back office job. But I will suggest that the brilliance of Myler’s point is that if you frame the conversation with your boss in a way that shows your intention is to maximize your impact on your team and your company, you’re likely to find the freedom to raise any concerns you have.

So, here’s the question you must answer before you speak to your boss: What three to four things am I doing now as a result of layoffs that are distracting me from making my best and highest contribution to my team and company?

If you’re not careful, you’re likely to come across as a bureaucrat rather than a business person. If you come into the conversation with your list of gripes, complaining that you’re doing work that’s not in your job description, or that staffing levels are too low to keep up, you’re adding to your boss’s headaches without any compensating payoff. This isn’t about mutual purpose, it’s about your purpose. Unless your boss is a saint, he or she will likely feel put off and put upon by your approach. After all, your boss’s life probably got more complicated in the past year, too!

So, make a list of all the big tasks that fill most of your time, ask yourself the leverage question, then think about your team and the company’s best and highest use of your expertise. As you consider this question, you may want to take a peek at some of Myler’s fourteen suggestions for how you can make a more significant profit—or if you are in a government or nonprofit role, how you can make a more significant mission contribution. Use these fourteen behaviors to assess what your best and highest use is to the organization. Then prepare a proposal showing the benefit to the company if you decrease time in some lower leverage tasks—and how you might deal with the consequences of minimizing these tasks. For example, propose ways to free up time by any of the following approaches:

· Simplify
· Outsource
· Delegate
· Re-engineer
· Delay
· Eliminate

Now, don’t be disingenuous. Be honest that this will be good for the company and for you. Sympathize with your boss and others who are feeling the same pressures while candidly acknowledging that the added burden has distracted you from things that should be first priority.

My assistant, Joanne, approached me in exactly this way a couple of years ago. She was clearly distraught because quality was slipping in some areas due to her ballooning responsibilities. I knew from her work habits that this conversation had nothing to do with her looking for a serene and contemplative work life. It was about survival—and quality. She carefully detailed the tasks she thought made the biggest contribution. I was putty in her hands because she understood my needs so well that I had no disagreement with her list. Then she continued, “If I continue to do X, Y, and Z—I won’t be able to improve my response time and quality in these areas. At least that’s how it appears to me. If you can see something I’m missing, please tell me. I don’t want to shirk my work.” I couldn’t say a thing, other than, “We’ve got to either eliminate those tasks, or find other ways to get them done.”

She let out a sigh and said, “That’s my proposal too.”

We implemented all of her ideas, and she walked out of my office having convinced me that she was worth far more than what we pay her. Hopefully, someday, we’ll catch up on that!

Best wishes!

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7 thoughts on “Help! I Survived a Layoff”

  1. Tammie

    This article is invaluable. We have all experienced overload and it definitely effects quality. Thank you so much. However, I have just one question: How do you find the time to show your employer where the problems lie when you are too busy to begin with?

  2. Dora Giraldo

    Dear Joseph,

    I always find your articles excellent and applicable and very helpful for the real job life, but today’s it is a “master piece”. You have really mentioned what is the key to be considered to stay or quit a job, I’ll forward the most people I know to keep it in mind in this hard time for professionals that are looking for a job or feel overwhelmed.

    Thank you very much

    Dora Giraldo (Mexico City)

  3. Jonathan

    Joseph, fanastic article. It’s a great way of helping people change from a victim mentality (“poor me…I’m so busy now”) to a perspective where they can take control and make themself invaluable to the organization.

    One caveat: while many organizations make it their primary (and often unstated) mission to make more money, there are many others that recognize profit is like breathing for humans–stop breathing for too long and your existence will come to an end. However, there is certainly more to life than just breathing. For organizations that really take their mission seriously, don’t just think about how you can make the organization more profitable, but examine how your job activities can help to better fulfill your organization’s mission. You stand a good chance of coming up with a mutual purpose that will impress your boss and keep you on the bottom of the layoff list.

  4. Teresa Trujillo

    This is a great question.

    I had a similar situation happen to me. My boss wanted me to helm a new “major project” for the large metropolitan newspaper I worked for. The problem was I already had 16 projects in various stages of development.

    I scheduled a meeting with him and brought all of the project files to his office. I told him I needed him to prioritize the 16 projects and either kill or reassign at least four of the projects before I could take on the new task. He looked stunned at first, but I explained that it would be impossible for me to give the time, talent, and effort needed on the new task if my current responsibilities were not lessened.

    It was clear to me that my boss didn’t have a real understanding of the workload he had assigned to me. The meeting was productive and the priorities were set for our future working relationship.

  5. Gordon Townsend


    All of the authors are extremely capable and taleted, but of them you seem to be the most sensitive to people and their needs. This is just another example of how you can cut to the core of our fears.



  6. Joseph Grenny

    What a beautiful metaphor. I could not agree more heartily. I am a firm believer that decline begins when profit supplants service as the real goal of the organization. We get the profits we deserve! @Jonathan

  7. Joseph Grenny

    Way to go, Teresa! You could have written this article yourself from your own story. My colleagues and I did a study called “Silence Fails” (available at our website) a few years ago wherein we described how leaders sometimes go “missing” from playing the kind of leadership role required to prioritize work. We suggested that unless people are willing to step up to Crucial Conversation with them and hold them accountable for this guidance projects and work will go awry. You did was so few do by approaching your boss in this way. Great example! @Teresa Trujillo

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