The Psychological Transition of Layoffs with Leanne Elliott (1/2)

Welcome to episode 237 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of a discussion with Leanne Elliott, detailing what got her into psychology as a profession, her experience as a coach and what the coaching profession is, and the events prompting her specialty in business psychology. We’ll also talk about the psychological impact of layoffs on employees impacted, employees that remain at a company, and the managers who have to execute layoffs.

Original Recording Date: 07-04-2023

Topics – Meet Leanne Elliott, An Interest in Studying Psychology, A Crisis Provides Clarity, The Discipline of Coaching, Thoughts on Resumes, The Emotional Baggage of Layoffs, Decoupling Our Identity and Checking Vitals, Generational Attitudes, Interviews and Future Focus, The Manager’s Experience in Layoffs

3:20 – Meet Leanne Elliott

  • Leanne Elliott is a certified business psychologist and leadership coach. She founded a consultancy to help owner-led businesses navigate people and culture with her co-founder and husband Al Elliott.
    • In their consultancy Leanne and Al help leaders who may not have the experience in how to engage and motivate people.
    • If you missed our discussions with Al Elliott that led up to this discussion with Leanne, check out Episode 235 and Episode 236.
  • Leanne is also the co-host of the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Podcast with Al Elliott (part of the Hubspot podcast network). The podcast has a similar focus to that of their consultancy.
    • On Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture you will find discussions on topics such as leadership, neurodiversity, and toxic workplaces with the goal of giving owner-led businesses the tools they need to create amazing workplace cultures.

4:11 – An Interest in Studying Psychology

  • For a great background story on Leanne from her own podcast that we really enjoyed listening to before we interviewed her on the show, check out this episode of Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture. Al’s background story for reference can be found here.
  • Early on Leanne knew she wanted to pursue psychology. This may have been what author Dan Coyle refers to as ignition.
    • When Leanne was in high school a friend lost her mother to meningitis. This was shocking to understand as a 14-year-old, and Leanne didn’t know how to navigate that moment or how to support her friend.
    • At the time the school brought in a clinical psychologist to speak to the entire class. The person spoke to the class about how they were feeling, what was normal to feel in that situation, and helped them understand it was a trauma / something unusual for young people to go through.
    • The psychologist provided some coping strategies for the situation and ideas for how to be there for Leanne’s friend (just be there to listen and ask questions without being overly reassuring or judging).
    • “I remember coming out of that thinking ‘I feel better. I still feel upset by the situation, but I feel more in control, both of my emotions and how to navigate the situation.’” – Leanne Elliott, recounting her first experience with a psychologist
    • Leanne recognized the impact the psychologist had made on her and her class.
    • For a few months the psychologist stayed around at the school and would often come and talk to students individually or as a group.
    • At one point Leanne asked the psychologist how she got into psychology and got some great advice on options and subjects to take to pursue it as a career.
    • Before choosing her [A-levels], Leanne knew what she needed to do to pursue a degree in psychology.
  • Leanne tells us within psychology there are many focus areas. While pursuing her degree…
    • Leanne thought she wanted to be a counseling psychologist which may have stemmed from the experience in high school.
    • She was given the advice to get some voluntary experience and chose to volunteer as a listener with the Samaritans organization around 2004 / 2005. Samaritans is a listening-based service based in the UK that often helps people experiencing feelings of distress and despair (including suicide).
      • Leanne says people would call the hotline and discuss their problems. She says the recruitment and training process was quite detailed.
    • Through this experience Leanne quickly realized she did not want to be a counseling psychologist. There is a huge weight to being put in someone else’s world during times of distress, and Leanne felt like this didn’t resonate as she thought it would.
    • In her 3rd year of pursuing a degree Leanne learned about business psychology, and she tells us it “all seemed to click.” Leanne liked the idea of being a psychologist who could help business leaders create an environment that supports positive health and wellbeing, purpose, meaning, and fulfillment / joy for the majority of employees. It felt really special to her.
    • After getting a first degree, Leanne went back and pursued her masters.
  • She graduated in 2008, and at the time jobs were tough to come by, especially in the HR, people, and culture areas where Leanne would fit.
  • Leanne landed her first role at a HR consulting firm and stayed about 18 months.
    • During the last 6 months of working there Leanne didn’t feel challenged in the work and that many projects were too similar in nature.
  • Feeling there must be a way to use her education based on the overall climate, Leanne noticed welfare to work (a government program that helped people regain employment) was booming. There were a lot of companies looking for coaches during this time when unemployment was high.
    • “So I applied for that, got the job, and that’s really when the whole trajectory of my career changed in a way that I didn’t anticipate it to do….” – Leanne Elliott, on getting into coaching

8:59 – A Crisis Provides Clarity

  • John points out the similarities between Leanne’s time as a listener for Samaritans (and listening to people in crisis), which she did not want to do as a career, and her time coaching people in a career crisis (which changed her career trajectory). What was the main difference that made the coaching more appealing?
    • By having the experience with the Samaritans, Leanne had ruled out clinical psychology and clinical psychology as career options. But despite this she did enjoy the volunteer work and stayed on for 5 years until getting her job at Pinnacle People as a coach.
    • Samaritans is not an advice service but rather a listening service. You are there to help people navigate their own feelings, emotions, and options. But you’re not there to solve problems, even if one viable option is for someone to end their life.
    • In taking on the role of coach at Pinnacle People Leanne had to shift her mindset to provide practical advice. She was there to help people solve problems, find better options, and change their mind. This is the point at which Leanne left Samaritans.
    • Without the financial crisis, Leanne would likely not have pursued the coaching avenue.
      • “I probably would have stayed in organizational level HR, people, and culture because that’s where I found my joy in terns of having impact. But I recognized that as an ambitious individual, this was a route that gave me options, gave me progression.” – Leanne Elliott, on deciding to pursue coaching
    • With coaching, Leanne felt like she was developing a skillset she had some basis in (from her time at Samaritans). The role was also one in which she saw progression to management as an option.
      • “And I thought the next best thing is if I’m not helping organizations create great managers, maybe there’s also an opportunity to test my own nerve and actually be a manager myself.” – Leanne Elliott, on seeing a progression path to management as a later option
    • The vocation (coaching) isn’t something Leanne felt was a calling. It was one based on the economic circumstances provided opportunities for learning, progression, and some stability.
  • John says even in economic downturn there was opportunity for Leanne. It was not what brought her joy but was adjacent enough that it used many of the same skills she had already developed.
    • Leanne says the experience shaped a new mindset for both her and Al and may have been one of the best things that could have happened for her.
    • “We’ve always come to the conclusion that nothing is wasted. That moment, those skills you develop, that experience we have…will be applied at some point down the line….It wasn’t a trajectory I would have chosen, but perhaps it was the one I was meant to be on.” – Leanne Elliott, on the mindset she and Al have developed as business owners based on their past experiences, including Leanne’s career shift during the economic downturn.

12:52 – The Discipline of Coaching

  • Nick didn’t realize coaching in areas outside of athletics was really something people did before interviewing so many people who are coaches on the show.
  • Leanne feels a coach in any context is about the same (whether it’s life coaching, leadership coaching, sports, etc.). A coach is there to help someone navigate situations that feel overwhelming, those that have high performance expectations, pressure situations, or situations in which people are facing a novel challenge for the first time.
  • Leanne tells us coaching is very different from mentoring.
    • You’re not expected to be an expert in the areas you’re coaching someone. The job is to facilitate conversations, learning, and development the person needs as an individual.
    • “It’s really about finding those tools so that you can help people come to their own conclusions….” – Leanne Elliott, on what coaching is
    • Coaching can also help people come to their own route forward, find their resiliency, their own coping mechanisms, etc.
    • “You’re an enabler as a coach, and I think that’s true across all fields of coaching.” – Leanne Elliott, coaches as enablers
    • John says it’s not about being an expert in all the technical details of some specific scenario but to be an expert at the coaching process.
    • Leanne says if you have expertise you may be tipping into being a mentor (i.e. imparting advice and practical steps to take for someone else based on your experience, etc.).
    • If you are trying to decide whether you need a coach or a mentor, consider…
      • “Do I want somebody with my experience who’s going to guide me to get to where they are, or do I want somebody who is going to help me navigate my own path to where I want to be?” – Leanne Elliott, on the decision between getting a coach and getting a mentor
    • Maybe we should look for coaches outside our domain of expertise to help us see our blind spots?
      • A coach brings a distance and a clarity because they are not absorbed in the same world as you. They may not know what it is like to be a software engineer but understand how the challenges people face in their specific area are similar to those others face.
      • In a nutshell it’s about empowerment and enablement of the person being coached.
    • Do coaches also seek to hold people accountable, or is that part of being any of a mentor, a coach, or a manager?
      • Leanne thinks this idea of accountability fits into all 3 classifications here.
      • The coach can help people set their own challenging goals. A manager might set specific goals for you, but a coach helps you set your own goals.
      • There is definite friendly confrontation when it comes to a coach holding people accountable for achieving their goals. A coach might be checking to see if someone has taken the necessary steps to change their current situation.
      • “If you want to change, you have to be the one that drives that.” – Leanne Elliott, on individual accountability
      • Nick suggests the coach is helping someone own the change process end to end by guiding them through it.
    • In thinking about the difference between coach and mentor, John thinks maybe the traditional sports coach is more of a mentor from the standpoint of giving technical guidance.
      • Specific technical guidance and expectation setting together might be more like what a manager does. John says some sports have a manager and not a coach, for example. Baseball, for example, has positioned coaches, but even there they exist to give technical advice perhaps more so than development advice.
    • Leanne tells us there can be some crossover when it comes to the specific technical guidance piece and coaches. In her role as a job coach and Pinnacle (or even in a career coach role now), there is a little more of an element of advice. There are transactional elements in this form of coaching relationship (which may be different than that of the life or executive coaching relationship) that require guidance and advice like…
      • How to have a great resume
      • How to make yourself appealing on LinkedIn
      • How to apply for a job and get your resume to the top of the pile
      • How to act / present oneself in interviews
      • How to answer competency-based questions
    • There are only a certain number of options / ways to present a compelling resume. For a summary of our previous advice on resumes, check out Episode 203.

18:45 – Thoughts on Resumes

  • Nick tries to trigger John a little bit around resumes and formats. John shares some of our thoughts on resume writing and that people tend to focus more on making the resume fancier instead of having more impactful content.
    • Leanne would advise us to never put columns in a resume because the majority of applicant tracking systems cannot read them when harvesting data from your resume. She would advise keeping the resume format as simple as possible.
    • John mentions putting a headshot on your resume is not important and may be perceived as injecting bias.
  • How much time do hiring managers spend looking at resumes compared to a recruiter or HR representative, for example?
    • The reality is people are looking for key things to ensure you hit the minimum criteria.
    • “I would imagine that your average recruiter or hiring manager probably won’t spend more than 20 seconds looking at your resume on the first sift.” – Leanne Elliott
    • After that first pass, perhaps people would spend more time looking at each candidate’s resume to further narrow the pool.
    • The ideal best practice is to look at every resume received before making a decision. But that probably isn’t true either, and people would likely limit themselves to looking at the first 100 resumes they receive.
    • “There’s best practice rules. How many people apply them within the constraints of a very busy job? I think that’s a big ask of any recruiter.” – Leanne Elliott
    • Nick says this tracks with the advice from other guests who have shared they don’t have enough time to spend more than about 30-60 seconds on a single resume. Looking at 100 resumes with this time spent per resume is still a lot of time!
  • One of Leanne’s pieces of advice for people who are applying for jobs that are expected to get a high number of applications is to always write a cover letter, even if the job description / advertisement does not ask for one.
    • The cover letter is your chance to create a document which is very scannable and can speak directly to the criteria the job is asking for.
    • Use bullets in the cover letter to make it very clear you meet the job criteria and illustrate with examples. Put the bullets in the cover letter in the same order of the items in the job description. This makes it very easy for a recruiter or hiring manager to see you meet the minimum requirements and put you in the yes pile.
    • Leanne recommends attaching your cover letter to your resume as one document that gets submitted to the applicant tracking system.

22:37 – The Emotional Baggage of Layoffs

  • John mentions the tech layoffs we’re seeing in 2022 and 2023 and posits they are an echo / a rhyme of what happened in 2008 but in this case focused in a specific industry. John wonders if some of the advice Leanne provided others during that 2008 financial crisis would be just as relevant to people going through the current layoffs?
  • Leanne says the volume we’re seeing of tech layoffs is high, and it’s a bit of a unique situation.
  • There are a few things Leanne would recommend people do who have been laid off / made redundant.
    • Take the time to experience this workplace trauma (a trauma with a little “t”). Leanne references the Bridges Transition Model that applies to how we experience change.
      • Being made redundant is a sudden change over which we have very little control. It’s something done to you, and it completely changes your world. It’s something which must be dealt with.
      • “The change is quick. The psychological transition to accept that change is much, much slower. It could be 3 months. It could be 6 months. It could be 2 years….if you don’t dealt with that effectively.” – Leanne Elliott
      • Process the emotions that come with the end of something. Mourn the end of that job / life / vision for how thought things would go, and deal with it.
      • Once you have dealt with the above you can put your productive energy into the next phase (exploring the new opportunities).
      • To Leanne what is unique about the tech layoffs is they felt a bit personal. People were working for companies with good cultures and benefits, and working their gave them pride (and in some cases became part of their identity).
      • There is no doubt there is competition out there looking for jobs within the same industry have the same skills and experience.
      • “How attached are you in this moment of economic crisis in the tech industry…to staying in tech? There are so many industries out there who would love so much to have your skills. There is a skills shortage in the majority of industries. There are ways that you can apply those same skills in a different industry. And it is a big change, and it’s probably not what you envisaged for the first 10 years of your career. But, if you’re open to exploring that…” – Leanne Elliott, on approaching tech industry layoffs with an open mind
      • If you’re open to exploring roles outside of tech companies, you’re probably more likely to get a role quicker, more likely to find a role that challenges you in a different / refreshing way, and it allows you to put your skills to the test.
      • “If a skill is a real skill, it’s transferrable…across context, across industries, even across countries. So I think if you really want to challenge those skills, put those skills to the test, hone those skills…then moving industry could be a really cool way to do that.” – Leanne Elliott, on applying your technical skills in a new industry (i.e. outside of tech companies)
      • This could apply more broadly even, but it might require baby steps. Leanne mentions we could look at doing something completely different from tech (i.e. not taking a role focused on technology) like moving into operations.
      • There are many layers to this analysis. Let the discovery process begin with looking at what skills you have which could be applied to a new industry / new company. And think about whether you could enjoy a career that isn’t in the tech industry.

27:29 – Decoupling Our Identity and Checking Vitals

  • We’ve previously discussed separating who we are (our identity) from what we do and who we do it for. This conversation is a great reminder we should make sure we’re investing in ourselves and our capabilities.
    • Is it important that we apply our skills specifically for Twitter, Facebook / Meta, or Microsoft? Or is it more important that we have the skills in the first place that can be used at any company we find enjoyable? For example, is it of utmost importance that a software developer work for a software company, or could they develop for a company that was focused on media and entertainment / oil and gas / healthcare / some other vertical?
    • John mentions we can fall into thoughts of safety and comfort, especially if we have been at a company / role for a while. Things outside of this area where we are comfortable pose a certain amount of risk and fear.
    • Even though we might say we’re ok with ambiguity in interviews, when it comes down to it, ambiguity can be very difficult. It may even more true for people who have not taken the time to mourn the life they had and accepted it has ended (because of a layoff). It’s very difficult not to keep asking yourself “why me?”
    • John reminds us he was part of the Google layoffs in early 2023. We did a series of episodes on this starting with Episode 220.
      • “When I picked up the phone and saw the notice at 2 AM and felt a little bit personal, but at 8 AM the next morning when I found out it was 12,000 other people I was like ‘you don’t layoff 12,000 people in a personal manner.’” – John White, on reacting to being laid off
      • John says it still feels personal even knowing the above, but working through the trauma is critically important to move forward.
    • Leanne says this is where coaching can really be powerful. She has supported a few different people pro bono from the tech industry through coaching sessions to get them on a different path.
      • Identities can be connected to what we do and who we do it for, and Leanne feels this is especially true in the tech industry. Tech companies have such fierce workplace cultures, and the downside of this is when letting people go it’s hard and it’s personal to them.
      • Leanne uses a model called VITALS. It helps explore what’s important to you as an individual – your values, interests, temperament, around the clock / the part of the day in which you function best, life goals, and strengths.
      • This is a holistic and objective look at yourself which helps you think about what you derive from work / life / community. Think about what you liked about a specific job removed from the context of that company. Was is flexible work schedule / ability to work remotely? If so, can this be achieved only by continuing to work for a tech company? Go and research that answer before making assumptions!
      • Mapping things out in this way can help people untangle their identity from their role / from the tech world, identify things which are important to them, and where else they can find them (a specific industry, a specific company, a specific job role). This helps people craft a checklist.
      • Maybe you could let go of working for a tech company but at the same time have a list of 5 things need in that next job / company. If you get 4 of those by working in the healthcare sector (an area undergoing massive digital transformation), maybe that’s the path for you.
      • “It’s almost like you’re at the same time of dealing with that emotional and personal aspect of it, you’re almost turning it into some kind of objective checklist in terms of what is important to me, what fit to my values, what fit to my life goals, and why can I actually achieve this……Because if I can be in a world and live in a world and have a job where all my vitals are being met then my sense of fulfillment, my sense of purpose, my sense of wellbeing is just going to be so positive and so high….It’s kind of a psychological and emotional thing and another kind of practical thing, ‘how do I remove myself from this environment and find a different one where my needs are going to be fulfilled?’” – Leanne Elliott
      • Nick says we don’t often take the time to think about these things or perhaps have not taken the time to determine what their values are. It takes time in reflection and possibly journaling to help you find clarity.
      • Leanne says this brings us back to the idea that nothing is wasted and reminds her of her time with the Samaritans. The first step is not about solutions but rather dealing with the distress and figuring out what is important. Then you go through the practical steps (which may sound harder but are actually the easy part).
      • “The reality is even if you jumped into another job 2 weeks later, if you never at any point in your career take the time to figure out that early stuff (those vitals / what’s important to you), it’ll break at some point…whether it be burnout, whether it be leaving your job in your mid-40s…it’s going to hit at some point.” – Leanne Elliott, on the importance of determining our values and what is important
      • An interesting observation about generation z members of the workforce is that they seem to already be prioritizing these things (personal values aligned with company values, work / life balance, flexible work schedule, development opportunities, etc.). People may feel this is a sense of entitlement, but these types of things are how we work sustainably.

34:43 – Generational Attitudes

  • John has heard the view that every assumption previous generations had about stability, progression, and career has been in the first 18 months betrayed to this generation.
    • Leanne says many of these folks’ parents could have been laid off during the global financial crisis.
    • That would mean younger generations aren’t making the assumption that one should go into debt to get an education and then get a good job working for a company for many years, etc. It seems like they (younger generations) have peeled back the material things and are left with the psychological things.
    • If someone is making the assumption that they will lose their job at some point because of a financial or other crisis, they can focus on the things that will make them happy and fulfilled in the work they are doing. This is not the attitude of everyone, but it’s definitely a trend that is hopefully healthier for the people, their careers, and the organizations they eventually go on to lead.
  • Leanne says people who start their careers with this mindset John mentioned above tend to (in her experience) make pretty good managers and leaders because they have a bigger view of the meaning of work to the individual while also understanding the importance of vision, mission, purpose, and meaningful work.
    • Post pandemic we’re seeing a hard swing the other way. Likely tensions between employers and employees will ease, and some of the stronger generation z ways of thinking about the world may soften.
    • “We can be fulfilled in our work and make money for our business. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.” – Leanne Elliott

37:39 – Interviews and Future Focus

  • When someone has been laid off, how do they approach talking about it in interviews with potential employers?
    • Leanne’s advice is to always look forward, and don’t look back. Instead of focusing on how hard the layoff experience was or how personally attacking it was, acknowledge that it happened and that the focus is pursuing a role with the company for which you are interviewing.
      • Tell them why you are excited and that the skills you’ve built working at the previous company will allow you to achieve something at the new company. Deflect forward.
    • There has been so much media attention to Twitter (X), Meta, Amazon and a lot of public backlash over being made redundant. Leanne mentions working with people who were trolled on social media for getting laid off (being called entitled and accused of having inflated salaries, etc.). It’s a very different situation, and Leanne feels people in HR, culture, and hiring managers are aware of this.
      • “I think this is again where if you’ve taken the time to deal with that redundancy emotionally, psychologically you can sit there and say, ‘yeah that was a really tough situation, so I engaged a coach. And I’ve worked with them for 3-5 sessions, worked through that experience, closed the door on it, worked through what I wanted in my career, started to get excited and look forward, and this is why I am here today to talk to you about this job.’” – Leanne Elliott, an example of a way to share your processing of going through a layoff in a job interview

39:47 – The Manager’s Experience in Layoffs

  • What if you’re the manager who has to execute a layoff? What is the type of processing that goes on for someone in that seat?

    • Leanne says it’s tough and that she’s had to lay off two teams over the course of her career (and she is not that old).
    • This is a very hard thing to go through for any manager who has empathy for their team.
    • Managers in this situation need support. They are experiencing the same thing as the people impacted but from the other side. It’s an immediate change to execute, and managers have to go through the psychological transition of losing people they have developed, nurtured, and coached. This also has to be mourned.
    • Leanne says it’s a similar process the managers will need to go through to the one those who have been laid off will need to go through. Organizations need support in place not only for those who have been made redundant but also for those who remain (both managers and employees).
    • We know that redundancies can make sense. The tech industry was arguably over hiring during the pandemic (chasing a growth-focused model instead of a profit-focused model).
    • “It’s not a question of if you need to make layoffs. It’s how you make those layoffs. That in and of itself speaks to your employer brand, it speaks to your values as an organization, and your culture as an organization.” – Leanne Elliott, thoughts for the company needing to make layoffs
    • Leanne shares the differences between how leaders handled the Stripe and Twitter layoffs which happened around the same time.
    • Managers need the support to ensure they are doing the redundancy process in the right way (an empathic and supportive way). Leanne tells us there is a survivor’s guilt that happens in those who remain at a company when there have been mass layoffs. This is a psychological transition.
    • It’s a really great opportunity for a company (big or small, regardless of industry) to think about how the reduction in force has changed the company mission, its values, and what the company wants to achieve in the next few years. It’s a time to refresh that whole narrative for the people who remain. They need the support through the psychological transition into what the company has become post-layoff. It’s a different organization than it was previously, and people need to understand what their role is in delivering on the mission of the new organization.
      • Nick says this gives them a chance to re-commit themselves in a way.
      • John says an important part of this is a leadership acknowledgement of mistakes which may have led to where the company is and some reassurance for remaining employees that layoffs are over.
      • John has seen some patterns in layoffs where instead of one large layoff (one sharp pain) it was a slow drip of smaller layoffs every couple of months. This could produce unproductive organizations and cause attrition of people you might want to keep due to the stress of the environment.
      • Leanne says the constant state of ambiguity / flux / uncertainty can be hard.
      • “There are plenty of psychologists out there who will always make the argument…do whatever you can business wise / commercially to avoid making layoffs because however well you make layoffs, it is going to have an impact on the performance of your business, the moral of your people. It just will.” – Leanne Elliott
      • The first bit of advice per Leanne is try to avoid layoffs. But if you do get to that point (a large tech company, for example, has to make layoffs), it’s a very difficult decision that you manage in the best possible way for the people leaving and those staying with the intention of providing an environment with some sense of certainty and stability with a clear vision of the future. If you’re going to do layoffs, do it all at once and not in small pieces.
  • Mentioned in the outro

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