The 3 Options

I guess this is part four of my one part series (parts one, two & three) on layoffs and reorgs. For the record, I was right about the reorg following right behind the layoff.

In part three, I talked about the loss of control that layoffs cause. Reorgs just pile on to that, and then, every change that happens after that just makes that feeling worse. We get more and more defeated until we just can’t manage change at all.

In my first startup, I had a coworker who was like this. Every change was the end of the world and they were miserable for weeks, even about the smallest thing. I think I was so jaded after 13 years at AOL, where I think executives changed things just so they could justify their existence, that change just… doesn’t register all that much. Unless it impacts my actual happiness, I usually just adjust and move on.

I’d never thought through my personal calculus for how to react to a constantly changing workplace, so, to help my friend, I came up with a framework for how to handle change. I hope it helps you.

Given any change, you have three options:

  • Accept it
  • Fight it
  • Quit

That’s it. The more time you try to spend between those options, the more you will suffer. You need to intentionally decide which option you’re going with. You can decide to fight it and then give up and accept it. That’s fine. You can’t not fight it and not accept it, because you’ll just be miserable. You can’t not fight it and not quit… again, misery.

Accepting it doesn’t mean you like it or agree with it. It just means it’s not a big enough offense to fight it or quit. It means you might still be upset about it, but you’ll move on. It means you need to let it go and prepare for how you’ll exist within the new change.

Just complaining about the change is not fighting it. Complaining is between acceptance and fighting.

Fighting is strategic. Fighting takes a plan. Deciding to fight it means gathering allies, coming up with a counter proposal, working your connections and trying to make a change. Fighting means getting organized.

Complaining is a good way to make yourself a target without any upside, so be careful who you do it in front of. If you’re going to do it, tack on a proposal to the end so you can move into fighting mode.

There’s strategic complaining, which is a different topic, where you can complain publicly in an attempt to gather allies for the fight. That’s a calculated risk, and you need to be very careful about how you do it.

You should definitely let management know how a change has impacted you, but I would recommend doing it privately, and only as far up the management chain as you have influence. If you’re 12 managers away from the CEO, firing off a thousand word missive to them (or anyone more than one layer above you) is a great way to have some conversations you don’t want to be in (ask me how I know). Even if you’re only three layers of managers away, be careful.

Quitting is the last straw, but we need to remember that it is an acceptable option. We get so invested in our jobs that we forget that leaving them and finding something else to do is fine. It’s a good thing to move on. Now, quitting can take some time, but making the decision to dust off your resume and start job hunting can give you back some of the power you felt you lost.

There are whole books that could be written, and maybe have, about how to do all three of those options, but after 28 years in the industry, I haven’t found any new options to add – those three pretty much cover it.

The Illusion of Control

I’ve been talking to a lot of people since the layoffs last Wednesday, helping them (and myself) come to terms with the colleagues that are no longer here, all of the survivor’s guilt, uncertainty and fear that comes along with it. I’ve talked about some of those things in the previous two posts (this one and this one), but I want to talk about the fear and uncertainty today.

A lot of my friends are now really afraid there will be another layoff, to the point that it’s all they can think about. Because who loses their job in a layoff seems random and no one will ever give you a satisfactory answer of why anyone was let go, it feels impossible to make sense out of it.

I was talking through this earlier this week with someone and I think part of the answer is about losing our sense of control over our place in the world.

One of the causes of suffering in Buddhism is impermanence. I can’t remember where I read it, but my favorite way I’ve heard it stated is that suffering is caused by a misalignment in our perception of the world versus how the world really is.

Layoffs destroy the illusion that we have control over our work.

We think that once we have a job, that if we do that job well, it’s ours as long as we want it. In a layoff, there’s no way that illusion can survive, because who gets let go also doesn’t make sense.

For me, the solution to that is to stop pretending that I have control over things I can’t control.

I don’t get to choose the external conditions, the decisions of leadership or mistakes that lead to a layoff. I could lose my job at any moment. I have no control over any of that, and in order to be happy, I have to accept that I have no control over it.

What I can choose is:

  • How I relate to work: work is just one part of my life, not all of my life. I need to do things that make me happy outside of work like maintaining my health, my relationships and my perspective.
  • How I prepare for the possibility of being laid off: I call this the “blanket fort”. If I was laid off, how long could I go before I had to have another job? Do I have enough savings to alleviate most of that fear? If not, that’s where I would start.
  • How I work day to day to get the most enjoyment out of my current situation: I mentioned this before, but I had to accept a long time ago that who I work with, what I work on, and how long I get to do both isn’t up to me; so, I choose to enjoy those things for as long as I can.

None of those things are easy, and they took me a long time to come to terms with and work towards. But, they make handling the inevitable disappointments of my work life easier to handle, and the feelings around them manageable.

Layoffs are a sudden and one-sided renegotiation of your working conditions. You don’t have to accept those new conditions. You can also renegotiate how you work, how much work you do, and your relationship with your work – up to and including deciding that you’d like to work somewhere else.

Nothing that happens during a layoff and the resulting chaos of reorgs and uncertainty about our position in an organization is easy. It’s all extremely stressful. The best we can do is try to ride that part out and get back to some sense of equilibrium. Lean on your friends and family for support. Talk to people. Don’t keep all of it inside, because other people have been there and can help. Being afraid, uncertain or angry… all of that is natural and you’re not the only one feeling it.

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One Last Layoff Lament

In my last layoff-related post, I tried to talk through some of the emotions you’ll feel, and why no question you’ll ask will get an answer that will satisfy you. Well, I’ve still been thinking about them, and how we navigate them.

A layoff confronts us with suffering we can’t turn away from, can’t reason with, and can’t help but see ourselves in.

When there’s a disaster or tragedy, we can turn off the news. When there’s a scandal, we can console ourselves that we’d never be that stupid. When our company gets hit with a layoff, and people we’ve worked with closely are just not there anymore, there’s no way you can turn it off or reason it away – because it could have easily happened to us. You have to confront it, and for some of us, that’s really difficult.

The questions we ask after a layoff all map pretty cleanly to the five stages of grief. They’re difficult to sit through. We’ve had two large meetings since last Wednesday at Gusto and I squirmed through both Q&A sessions.

Why?

Mostly because I knew the answers would be at best unsatisfying, and at worst, confusing. But, thinking on it over the weekend, I think the part that felt the worst was seeing the suffering beneath the question. People were angry. They were trying to negotiate with the grief, by trying to figure out ways to bring people back. And none of that’s going to work…

By the time a layoff happens, it’s almost always too late (“almost” is there just to account for Elon Musk’s Twitter, though I’ve experienced one other layoff where management realized they let go of too many people and brought some of them back, but it was almost the same situation – someone who had no business being in charge making decisions without enough information).

As “survivors”, we have to go through that mourning process before we can get to acceptance and rebuild (because a reorg pretty much always follows a layoff). Trying to skip that part, either management trying to prematurely rally everyone, or you not giving yourself time and space to mourn, always ends in more sadness.

I think it’s doubly hard to rebuild trust in a company after a layoff. Layoffs usually result in people renegotiating their place in it – and more people will leave, this time voluntarily.

But, if you stay, the resulting chaos of the reorg can be a lot of fun. For me, they always feel like the first day of school – who am I going to be? What am I going to do differently? What can I jettison or claim in the chaos that will make my life easier / better / more fun?

It’s OK if you’re not ready to think about that yet – but, there will come a time, hopefully sometime soon, when you get to the acceptance stage and can decide what you want to do. If you’re not there yet, please know you’ll get there eventually, even if it’s somewhere else with a fresh start.

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The Layoff Line

With yesterday’s layoff at Gusto, I was inevitably thinking about my own history with #layoffs. For my jobs as an adult, I’ve only left by something OTHER than being laid off twice. Here’s the history:

  1. AOL: I survived more rounds of layoffs than I can remember (it felt like we did them once a quarter for awhile), and left on my own after 13 years.
  2. Music Intelligence Solutions: I ended up having to lay everyone off when we ran out of money, and even laid myself off.
  3. Rails Machine: I was laid off (which I think was just in lieu of firing me) because… reasons. I’d be happy to discuss them over a beverage sometime.
  4. Planted: COVID crushed the recruiting business and PPP wouldn’t cover all of us. I was effectively laid off, but mostly because I was both expensive and was able to find a new job.
  5. Outvote/Impactive: I left on my own.

Being laid off isn’t a black mark on your job history. If you’re in tech long enough, YOU WILL GET LAID OFF. It’s the consequence of working in an industry that’s pretty unstable, or for early stage startups.

It’s heartbreaking to go through them, on all sides. It’s obviously worst for those who’ve lost their jobs, but the people who stay get to deal with a flurry of emotions and questions – a lot of which management legally can’t answer, which makes it all even more frustrating.

All of those feelings are completely normal, and justified… but most of the questions aren’t going to get answered in any way that will satisfy you.

Your leadership team will NEVER be able to PROMISE that there won’t be more layoffs, EVEN IF THEY’RE BEING PLANNED. No one will ever tell you a layoff is coming. No one will ever tell you why people were laid off.

Layoffs are almost always followed by people choosing to leave because they’ve lost faith in their employer. That’s normal, and should be expected.

My friend Cindy Li always said, “work won’t love you back,” and she’s right. We’re all “resources” for our employers and the company is not your family.

A long time ago, I made a conscious decision for how I would work:

  1. I will treat everyone with loving kindness, and work where I love the people, the work, and I will love my coworkers as long as it’s possible to work with them. People leave, but they’re not dead.
  2. Change is constant. I will work to be comfortable with ambiguity and help create order from it.
  3. At the end of the day, there are three choices when confronted with any change: Accept it. Fight it. Quit. That’s it. If you’re between one of those three options, you’ll be miserable.

That was a lot. The last piece of advice I’ll give is… if you just survived a layoff, don’t get fired.

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