For Those Who Are Left Behind

Thinning the Ranks

In early May 2015, the Massachusetts state system initiated an early retirement program for as many as 5,000 state employees, with possible additional workforce reductions to follow. It’s unclear how many people will be leaving. Estimates suggest that state agencies will lose from 5% to 20% of their workforce by June 30. That’s three weeks away.

The people who retire will take valuable knowledge and experience with them. Their leaving will also create big gaps in the social networks essential to accomplishing the work of the Commonwealth.

Two Kinds of Org Charts

The formal org chart is one way of showing how an organization functions. There are chains of command, lines of authority and accountability. They show how resources are allocated, and how performance and financial management occur.

Much of the real work of organizations gets accomplished through informal social networks that exist around and alongside the org chart. When early retirements or significant workforce reductions happen, the formal org charts may be updated but informal networks are severely disrupted. Co-workers who helped get work done effectively in spite of red tape, bureaucracy and personality differences are no longer available.

In spite of how important social networks are to accomplishing the vital work of organizations, they are often unrecognized and unacknowledged.

What is a Social Network and Why is it Important?

This thought experiment might help illustrate:

Reflect on something you accomplished over the past six to twelve months. Something you are really proud of.

Make a mental list of all the people who helped you with that accomplishment, both directly and indirectly.

Now imagine that several of those people just disappeared. How would their absence affect your accomplishment? Would you still have been able to pull it off in the same way?   

That’s exactly what’s about to happen in Massachusetts: people will disappear. Those left behind will have to figure out how to do their jobs with significantly fewer co-workers. They will also need to figure out how to rebuild the networks that were an important part of the way work got done.

Toward a Way Forward

The Commonwealth is, wisely, planning to bring in organization and business process redesign consultants to work with agencies to manage this change. Hopefully, the consultants will also help agencies address the less tangible work of recognizing and rebuilding social networks that have big holes in them.

To support that effort, here are a few ideas for those who are left behind:

  • Management lies in formal structure. Leadership can be exercised by anyone in the network. You don’t need a formal position to lead. Capitalize on that.
  • As you seek to rebuild networks you’re part of, pay attention to the way performance is already occurring. Creating a simple network map can be a good way to visualize what’s working now and what needs to be strengthened. Remember, though, that you can’t create a network but you can strengthen it by paying attention to how it’s working now.
  •  Once you’ve got a visual of your network, ask yourself the following questions:
    • With whom do you have the strongest connections? With whom do you think you should have the strongest connections? If they are not the same as above, what might you do to strengthen them? (think: build social capital)
    • Who is an important connector in your network? Who has very few connections and what are the implications for your work?
    • What might you do to strengthen weak connections? To manage where you have too many connections?
    • Who in your network has the most influence and what might you do to strengthen your connection with them?
  • Pay attention to building social capital by:
    • Sharing information, resources and ideas
    • Championing others
    • Connecting people to one another
    • Freely giving of yourself
  • Instead of asking what needs to change, start off by asking what is most valued, what needs to be conserved?

Let’s face it: this change is not going to be painless. But hopefully, armed with knowledge of the power of strong social networks, the people left behind will continue to accomplish the vital work of the Commonwealth.