Letting Go of RIF-ed Off Rage: Survival Stages & Strategies for Soon-to-Be Terminated Employees
One way I know that the economy is still in trouble is by speaking topic requests: a) recently I wrote about an after-dinner presentation on “Letting Go” for a career transition support group; to be tactful, many folks were “in between” jobs and b) two weeks ago I led a program on managing stress for county government employees who, due to budget cuts, have either been notified of a specific future termination date or know that being “let go” is a distinct possibility. Not surprisingly, many in the former group were angry, while those in the latter group felt they were twisting in the wind of uncertainty. The workshop reminded me of my first experience as a RIF (Reduction in Force) trainer with the US Postal Service. I’ll never forget a female Management Trainee’s poignant lament: “I once had a career path then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it!” (To be fair, the county is providing a variety of transition support/coaching services to help these individuals land on their feet job-wise.)

My role is not quite akin to George Clooney’s “bearer of bad news” character in the movie, “Up in the Air”; I’m not announcing the “pink slip.” My goal is to help people express their anger, fear, feelings of abandonment, etc., in a constructive manner so that their overt or smoldering rage or wounded confidence doesn’t keep them in a helpless and victimized, “who gives a d_ _n” or stuck in a forever blaming “Big Management” place. I want to share some grief dynamics and active problem-solving ideas. I especially want to orchestrate supportive and challenging small group exercises that free up energy, foster some peer sharing and intimacy, reaffirm a sense of personal effectiveness and generate more problem solving focus, synergy and optimism.

Actually, the content, structure and format of the 90 minute workshop helped induce a process that captured a number of the parallels between unfolding phases of grief and the four stages of group formation/team development – Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. (The group stages are based on Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s classic model. The grief stage titles below are from my article, “Good Grief: Is It Mourning or Depression.” E-mail stressdoc@aol.com for the article.) Let me illustrate the grief responses as well as the group exercises and group process with “Letting Go” of RIF-ed Off Rage: Survival Stages and Strategies for Soon-to-Be Terminated Employees (and for HR Departments):

A. Fear and Panic or Numb and Shame or "Oh God, What Do I Do Now?" – Stress Identification Exercise – Forming Stage:

Most of the participants had been notified a few months ago of their unhappy fate. People were no longer in "It Can’t Happen Here!" shock, but some felt confused or fearful, even numb (or "Oh God, What Do I Do Now?"). One way of creating positive focus and initial movement is getting people to use their basic cognitive skills in a simple identification and sharing exchange through a “Three ‘B’ Transition Stress Barometer” Exercise: “How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more stress during these changing and challenging times?”

There were so many stress experts, and so many examples of “3 B” stress, I felt I was preaching to the choir. But we also generated some laughs. At minimum, social psychology research has shown that misery doesn’t just like company; it actually prefers miserable company. As for the group laughs, for example, I asked, “How many folks are eating more to numb that anxious feeling in their gut?” Not surprisingly, many hands shot up. When I then asked, “Does anyone lose their appetite and eat less when feeling stressed,” only a few hands cautiously fluttered. Of course my immediate reply: “And we hate those people, don’t we!” And another crowd pleaser: “Anybody dealing with TMJ? We know what that jaw tension really stands for: ‘Too Many Jerks!’”

But this lightheartedness was not longed lived. Once I chose to touch upon that sensitive, hot button, i.e., the emotional issues surrounding grief, the group Pandora’s Box was open, especially regarding feelings of anger and abandonment. (However, there’s method to the madness of facing your inner demons: the last fury out of the Pandora’s box was “Hope.”)

B. Rage and/or Helplessness or "How Dare They!" or "Oh No, How Could They!" – Grief Stages/Six “F”s for Managing Loss and Change Conceptual Tool – Storming Stage:

This emotionally charged stage began with my “Six ‘F’s for Dealing with Loss and Change.” The “Six ‘F’s” are psychosocial emotions, issues and tasks that challenge an individual to grapple with: a) the loss of the familiar, including a loss of self-identity b) an uncertain future, including a loss of security or predictability, c) a loss of face, or feeling devalued and discarded, d) regaining focus, especially focused aggression, by courageously embracing and reflecting upon vulnerable emotions to temper and harness feelings of rage , e.g., “I don’t like all this, but somehow I’m going to make the best of this situation,” e) getting good feedback by developing a “TLC” relationship: someone who can provide “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care,” and f) having faith that if you do your “headwork, heartwork and homework” you will develop the cognitive-emotional muscles to withstand this transitional tempest; you just may realize the opportunity in seemingly dangerous change and conflict. (Email stressdoc@aol.com for an elaboration of “The Six ‘F’s.”)

Initially, reactions ranged from a female participant’s, “I’m waiting to hit bottom to figure out what I’ll do” to a male attendee’s angry accusation, “You’re stirring up my rage all over again.” He went on to explain, that he had begun to “let go.” He realized this RIF situation was “a battle he couldn’t win.” This fellow opened the “storm” door: people more freely vented their anger at “not getting buyouts” or that employee salaries could have been cut across the board (and especially by “trimming the fat at the top”).

C. Focused Anger and Letting Go or "Turning a Lemon into Lemonade" – “You Can’t Make Me” Exercise – Norming Stage

For this workshop, being able to express feelings of anger and fear, rejection and abandonment, while discovering that the leaders in the room were supportive of this honest sharing was the primary group norm. And as indicated above, we also established my willingness to be confronted without getting defensive. In fact, I didn’t apologize for stirring up enraged feelings. I reframed the angry accuser’s pronouncement as hard earned wisdom; he was helping others realize that by engaging with aggressive energy they too might progress in the letting go and active problem solving process.

The other vital norm involved participants engaging in group exercises that allowed for venting but also challenged people to move beyond hurt, depression and rage. The goal was to help folks realize that they had some control (and ultimately some responsibility) for how they reacted (defensively) or responded (productively) to their challenging situation. And in judo like fashion, I provided an exercise that went with people’s emotional charge and ultimately helped transform their energy flow. (Basically, I would be illustrating one of the previously cited “F’s – “Re-Focusing Aggression.”) Very briefly, people pair off and square off for a power struggle. After choosing the role of Person A or B, each participant is asked to think of one person in his or her life who is or has been a “pain in your butt.” (Of course, I empathize with their dilemma: how can you limit it to just one!) Then, Person “A” says, “You can’t make me”; Person “B”s rejoinder: “Oh yes, I can!” The only instructions are, “You can’t get out of your chair, however, you can be aggressive or passive aggressive” (for example, whiny or “whatever”). I also affirm that “the goal is not to crush your opponent; you just don’t want to be pushed around.” And finally, after a couple of “You can’t make me”/”Oh yes, I can!” exchanges, then the pairs are told to, “Say what you really would like to say” to the person in your head as personified by your role play antagonist.

Not surprisingly, once the bell rings, the room erupts with aggressive energy, animated exchanges (verbal and nonverbal) and lots of laughter. And while I frequently use this exercise to provide tools and techniques for disarming power struggles and rebuilding trust, today I simply focus on the palpable energy increase and the obvious eruptions of laughter. When we can safely express and refocus our aggression, especially when we can sense some absurdity in the situation, and don’t take the conflict so personally, we uplift a mood and rejuvenate our focus through purpose-passion-play.

We have weathered and have begun to transform the hurt and anger of the storming and norming stages. Now we are ready to move from interpersonal dynamics to stress release and group development by: a) further refocusing the aggressive energy and b) engaging in group sharing-brainstorming-laughter and task performance, as well as team and community building.

D. Exploration and New Identity or "Freedom’s Just another Word…" and "Now You Are Ready to 'Just Do It!’" (even if scared) – “3-D: Team Discussion-Drawing-Diversity” Exercise – Performing Stage

The final exercise divides participants into groups of four (selected for demographic and role diversity) and basically engages all the stress, change and anger concerns noted above in a straightforward question: “What are the causes of everyday stress and conflict as you go through this challenging transition?” (The stress can be work and home related.) However, there is an unexpected twist. After the ten minutes of discussion, the clusters have ten minutes to come up with a group picture that pulls together and transforms the individual stress and conflict issues into a visual metaphor or story. Colored markers and flipchart paper are distributed following the discussion segment. (This exercise along with other popular Stress Doc team building tools and “how to” delivery instructions are available for purchase. For more info, including a sample team drawing design, email stressdoc@aol.com.) I further challenged the groups to earn “extra credit” by trying to capture some bridges to a more positive future.

And the “3-D” did not let me down; this exercise invariably captivates and compels any and all audiences, both small and large in number. (The exercise has been successful with as many as 350 people.) The room is abuzz with intense discussion and, increasingly, with bursts of laughter. Both in the discussion and the designs, people are definitely capturing the “rage” in “out-rage-ous!” (Not surprisingly, one group decided on a second sheet of a paper after their first attempt basically was an oversized “proverbial finger.”) Also, the foursomes are definitely working as a team; some folks get into the verbal discussion, others take to the drawing. And even people who were initially hesitant about drawing out their stress are drawn into the exercise by the animated group sharing and dynamics. Everyone has a chance to participate; no one person could capture the final group product. Because of the free flowing discussion and jazz riff interaction, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts and partners! All appreciate the focus, imagination and sense of empathy- team camaraderie generated in a concentrated period of time.

The exercise closes with a gallery walk (eyeing their colleagues’ creations) and then each group does a “show and tell.” And despite the anger and anxiety, several of the drawings take up the positive “bridge” challenge. For example, one group picture includes two doors – one closed the other open. The closed door conveys sadness and finality, maybe even a sense of being “locked out.” Walking through the open door can be scary; what’s behind the door, will I be up to the task? However, the open door reflects possibility maybe even some excitement at starting anew.

A second “bridge” design was a simple and clear symbol of unity, strength and stability: stick figures with arms interlocked. The message: We will make it through by relying on and supporting one another.

We ended the “3-D” experience by discussing, “What made the exercise useful and enjoyable?” Answers included, stress relief, discovering you’re not alone, learning more about their colleagues, shared laughter, working as a team, being creative, emotional release, etc. Our analysis closed with group acknowledgement that it was fun to do a “show and tell” with the drawings. (Hey, most of us have that inner six year old, just waiting to exclaim, “Look mom, look what I did today.”) And all agreed we had strengthened a sense of camaraderie and community.

Finally, I clinched the need for some light-hearted absurdity during times of adversity by performing one of my “Shrink Raps.” But based on the nonverbal eye contact and nodding heads, it was my closing words that seemed most resonant: “Turn to the energy and intelligence, the honesty and empathy in this room!”

Closing Summary

Obviously, this ninety minute workshop was not intended to send a Bobby McFerrin message: “Don’t worry, be happy!” However, by creating a learning atmosphere and group process whereby emotionally charged energy could be freely expressed and shared people discovered that aggression and angst can be channeled into passionately playful performance. And upon leaving the session people seemed to walk with a more purposeful and even a bit more hopeful step. (Or some realized needing to take their stress more seriously, e.g., one person asking about individual coaching.) Based on feedback as folks were leaving, the anger seemed better focused; some still may not feel the County had been fair, but most were not simply victims. Many appeared more ready to knock on, if not knock down, some of those double-edged doors. Through “letting go” concepts, interactive exercises and team building dynamics, the participants and our process had evolved; we had transformed rage into the “out-rage-ous!” While this program was only a small step in the grief work journey, by sharing emotions and connecting grief and group processes, employees generated their own “hands on,” professional-personal support, exploration and evolution. These tools and action steps definitely help individuals, teams, divisions and entire organizations more positively survive these challenging economic times and also help one and all...Practice Safe Stress!