10 Ways to Develop a Positive Mindset After Surviving a Layoff

10 Ways to Develop a Positive Mindset After Surviving a Layoff

It’s all too familiar these days: the heartbreaking images of empty cubicles, vacant offices, deserted downtown parades, and recurring headlines spewing news of cost reduction and more layoffs. The cuts are deep, and the pain is real for everyone involved. Yet the people who are often forgotten in these challenging times are the “layoff survivors,” those who have been spared the axe this time around and hopefully for good. These are the people left to pick up the pieces and keep the company running while dealing with their own complex mix of emotions.

Layoff survivors report feeling sadness at the loss of coworkers while penitently feeling relieved that it wasn’t them. It’s a confusing mix of relief and grief. Workloads have increased, priorities can be ambiguous and there are inescapable reminders of those who are gone all around them. The relationship with management often suffers, leaving survivors distrustful, resentful and disengaged. They can feel disconnected and demotivated and carry high levels of anxiety and stress. Some think about tapping out and starting fresh somewhere else, but feel trapped by the economic uncertainty. This spectrum of emotions is common among those left holding the torch, and it has been labelled layoff survivor syndrome.

Gravity, hope and what’s under your cloak

As a layoff survivor, you may be experiencing one of the most traumatic events of your life. Perhaps you were instructed to wait in your office, “marinating in anxiety” while the layoffs happened (“Last Person Standing: What it’s like when the axe falls in your office”). You might have watched as colleagues and friends were escorted out of the building, or you may have witnessed worse.

Do not underestimate the gravity of your experiences and your emotional reactions. Try to notice how you are dealing with grief and transition during change. Watch for signs of depression or anxiety, and access counselling even if you are not completely convinced you need it. Audit your nutrition, exercise and sleep habits, and get help to improve them. Self-care is the foundation of your recovery from this experience and requires attention if you are going to bounce back.

But what if your self-care is in check and you’re still upset and stuck? Good news: there is hope! Cloaked in this arduous time of your life is a crucial opportunity for self-discovery. You can transform your own experience. How? By noticing and choosing your mindset.

Are you wearing concrete shoes?

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck writes about the power of our beliefs, whether we are aware of them or not, and their profound effects on how we navigate our lives. She contrasts the “fixed mindset,” where we believe that our talents, abilities and intelligence are fixed traits, and the “growth mindset” where we believe we can develop these things through effort and persistence.

Dweck asserts that a fixed mindset is focused on judgement, and when faced with challenges it generates internal messages such as What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t have what it takes? If I fail, I will be a failure. People operating in a fixed mindset opt out of trying in order to avoid being judged. They stay stuck in “concrete shoes.” In a growth mindset, internal messages sound like I am not sure how to do it now, but I can learn with a little effort. Failure is normal; most successful people have failed along the way. If I fail, I will learn from it and try again. A growth mindset sees a challenge as a starting point for change.

How do you know if you are operating from a fixed or growth mindset? Dweck says we can operate from both. She writes “mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.”

So where do your thoughts spend their time? You may be operating from a fixed mindset if any of these describe your thoughts or behaviours:

  • I feel defensive when I receive critical feedback.
  • I engage in conversations that demean others.
  • I blame others even when I have made mistakes. 
  • If I try something and fail, it means I am a failure.
  • It’s important to me to appear intelligent to others. I avoid challenges that could threaten this appearance.
  • I believe achievement should be effortless. If I try and fail, it’s worse than not trying at all.
  • I seek affirmation of my talents and abilities.
  • I feel threatened by the success of others.
  • I use excuses for not achieving that are outside my control.
  • I don’t need to change—the world around me does.
  • I am a victim and none of this is my doing.

Layoff survivors with a fixed mindset may feel powerless, uneasy, vulnerable and incapable of adjusting to their new reality. They may not have the agility to meet the requirements of the new environment, and they may be paralyzed by the fear of trying and failing. Dweck writes, “When people believe in fixed traits, they are always in danger of being measured by a failure. It can define them in a permanent way. Smart or talented as they may be, this mindset seems to rob them of their coping resources.” In essence, their mindset makes it impossible to adapt, making them ineffective in the new context and even more vulnerable to future layoffs.

GrassWhat can be learned from the grass under your feet?

What can you do if you are operating from a fixed mindset, and you know it’s limiting you? We aren’t suggesting you need to change who you are, just to flex a little. Notice your mindset and ask yourself:

  • How do my thoughts and beliefs impact the way I feel?
  • How might others perceive me?
  • How does this contribute to the outcome?

These questions will move you into a growth mindset where you ultimately ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. This is you stepping out of your concrete shoes, getting curious about the feel of the grass beneath your feet, and starting to adapt and adjust to your new context with an open mind.

People with a growth mindset believe that they will learn from challenges, failures and mistakes. They see setbacks as a wakeup call and face them with perseverance and determination. They show resilience and step up with openness, creativity and curiosity. The growth mindset is characterized by believing that “effort ignites ability, which leads to accomplishment,” writes Dweck. If you want something badly, you will do something about it. You will put the effort in to achieve it.

Here are our top 10 tips to get started growing your growth mindset:

  1. Honestly assess how you are showing up at work. Ask for feedback from your peers and your supervisor. They will see things differently than you do, and there is great value in this.
  2. Admit to the role you are playing, and change it if it needs to be changed. Say no to gossip. Don’t look for people to blame. Refuse to engage in conversations that demean others. 
  3. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Ask questions. Be curious. Get involved. Don’t hide. Raise your concerns in a candid and respectful way.
  4. Be less defensive. When you receive feedback, listen for their intent (which is to help, because you asked for it!). Listen to learn, not to prove your theories—and don’t make excuses.
  5. You are still there, so be there. If you are struggling, initiate the conversations you need to have with the right people. Be self-directed. Ask for help; clarify your intent; be open to their support.
  6. Create learning experiences. Find a mentor; step up to leadership opportunities; stretch yourself. 
  7. Let go of negativity. It’s keeping you stuck. It raises stress hormones (cortisol) in your brain and prevents you from being creative and engaged. It is not serving you, so it doesn’t deserve your energy. 
  8. Be a leader. You have survived the layoffs; help your employer survive. Step up and help the business in any way you can. Be positive. Be solution-focused.
  9. Find the new rhythm of work. Create some new healthy routines, or re-establish the ones that worked well for you. 
  10. Forgive and move on.

Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Michael Jackson sang, “Start with the man in the mirror,” and Eric Clapton sang, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” We underestimate the power we have to influence our own experience of the world and the range of choices we have when we are feeling stuck. By understanding our own ways of thinking we can alter the way we feel and how show up for others in the world. This opens up a world of new opportunities and possibilities that we may have been blind to.

How can you change from a fixed to a growth mindset?

This article was first published in Oilweek Online March 31, 2016.