Going Back Better: Jumper Cables and Survivor Guilt

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I have a fifteen-year-old daughter who has her driving permit. As we have been logging her required driving hours together in the car, she has asked me a lot of questions. Recently, our conversation included both a tutorial on using jumper cables on a dead battery, as well as what “survivor guilt” means in the workplace. I explained survivor guilt refers to the confusing mix of feelings that surviving employees may feel after a reduction in force. I also explained how to use jumper cables to restart a dead battery. This got me thinking about the parallels between re-starting a dead car and re-kindling the productivity of people. No doubt, these are two very different things. People, in some cases, are trickier to revive, and “red on dead” reminds me the order of things matters greatly in certain situations.

Additionally, a study done by Leadership IQ found 74 percent of employees who kept their job amidst a corporate layoff say their own productivity declined since the layoff. And, sixty-nine percent said the quality of their company’s product or service declined since the layoffs. The important takeaway here is even when leaders do their absolute best to communicate reductions in force with transparency and empathy, surviving employees may still experience feelings of sadness and guilt. Before organizations can move forward productively, leaders must acknowledge and help people work through these feelings.


Restart Your Company by Working Through “Survivor Guilt”

Here are some helpful steps for leaders who want to jumpstart their team’s engagement by helping them deal with survivor guilt.


Take out your jumper cables

Many leaders try to move on to “business as usual” without directly addressing their team’s dead battery. Leaders should explicitly remind people that while guilt comes from a feeling of having done something wrong, surviving employees did not cause the layoff nor do anything wrong. The relief employees feel upon hearing that message is like the relief a stranded motorist feels upon seeing their pal roll up with a set of jumper cables. This is the first step to things getting better.


Place both vehicles in park or neutral and shut off the ignition in both cars

It may seem counterintuitive, but taking the time to stop and bring the team together for the sole purpose of talking about the layoff is important. Many leaders are uncomfortable entering the messiness of their own feelings, let alone others’, and they may even feel guilt for having been involved in the decision to downsize. These leaders may rush forward rather than take a pause, pushing their own feelings aside, not wanting to appear weak or uncertain. Putting things in park to acknowledge and discuss how people are dealing with changes is crucial to going back better.


Attach the red clips to the positive terminals of both batteries before the black clips

Just like jumper cables, leaders need to carefully connect with their team members on two levels: emotionally and intellectually. And, like jumper cables, the order in which you make these connections matters.

  • Emotional. Start by acknowledging that it is natural to feel a sense of loss or sadness, and open the door for team members to share their feelings – individually and as a group. Ask if any team members have connected with folks who are no longer with the company to offer support or help them find their next role. In some situations, there may be an opportunity to bring team members back once the business starts to recover so keeping the lines of communication open is important to do.
  • Intellectual. After you have displayed empathy and vulnerability, use questions to help people move from feelings to action. Here are a few examples:
    1. When were we at our best?
    2. What will we do differently going forward? Why?
    3. How does our team uniquely contribute to the company’s recovery?
    4. How will we measure our success?

Good questions framed around relevant problems and opportunities get people thinking. When people are thinking and identifying actions, they are being productive.


Start the working vehicle

Identify the team members who could serve as change agents. Tap the people who have displayed vulnerability, self-awareness, and professional maturity and who possess a track record of exceptional performance. Delegate tasks and objectives to these team members and give them a chance to help their teammates move forward. Adversity always creates space for new people to lead.


Keep the Engine Running

Finally, as the leader of the team, identify how you will stay focused and engaged. Consider the following questions:

  • What behavior or mindset changes do you need to make as a leader to go back better?
  • What kind of leader does your team need you to be?
  • What kind of leader does the company need you to be?
  • Are those things aligned? If not, how will you reconcile the difference?

Hopefully, these steps will help you jumpstart your team’s engagement and deal with survivor guilt productively. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on this topic. Contact me at hhaas@advisausa.com if you’d like a thinking partner on your specific situation.



If you’re looking to learn more on how to go back to the office better, read “Going Back Better” by ADVISA’s President, Heather Haas. And, don’t miss our recent webinar on the same topic, recorded here.

You might also enjoy “Three variables will make or break successful return to the office” by Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett.