Perceptions And Experiences Of Survivors Of Retrenchment Philosophy Essay

The preceding chapter justified the selected methodology as an appropriate research strategy in the framework created by the research problem and literature review. This chapter presents the findings obtained from the present study. It represents a thematic synopsis of the prevailing survivor responses obtained through three in-depth semi-structured interviews, where each core theme is described followed by a description of the contributory sub-themes within the core themes as well as aggravating factors (if applicable). Themes will be illustrated with direct quotations in a manner that adequately addresses the construed experiences of the interviewed survivors.

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The first core theme to emerge is the prevailing end state of survivors in the present study. The survivors demonstrated differing forms of denial, and these manifestations are illustrated as the subsequent three core themes, with their aggravating factors.

The next core themes to emerge relates to the affective and behavioural responses of survivors throughout the retrenchment process. Finally, the theme underlying and giving rise to the other themes is that of the survivors’ perception of the company retrenchment experience.

The chapter concludes with a critical discussion of the present study in light of previous research and literature in the field, and guidelines for organisations that are contemplating, or have already commenced, with retrenchments to reduce the anticipated negative effects of the retrenchment process.


In this section, the themes obtained from the gathered data are considered. As previously noted, the interviewees were quoted verbatim – these quotes are demarcated by the use of blue, italic text type. Journal and memo inclusions are demarcated by the use of italic text in shaded boxes.

In order to illustrate the perceptions and experiences of survivors of retrenchment, the outcomes of the present study are represented in Figure 5.1.

5.2.1 Denial

The first theme elicited from the interview transcriptions is that of survivor denial. Other researchers (De Vries & Balazs, 1997; Greenhalgh & Jick, 1989; Noer, 1993) have explored diverse defensive responses provoked by the retrenchment experience. One frequent and widespread response is denial, a defensive mechanism equally manifesting in both management and employees who is currently experiencing, or have recently experienced, retrenchment. Denial can be defined as “unconscious negation of some or all of the total available meanings of an event to alleviate anxiety or other unpleasant condition. Denial covers situations in which individuals in words, act, or fantasies attempt to avoid painful reality.” (Dorpat, 1983).

Denial assisted the survivors in regulating their feelings of grief, thus protecting them from anxiety and pain by refusing to completely experience happenings that the survivor could not cope with. In this regard, there is a charm in denial, as it only lets in as much grief as can be handled. However, the survivors could not work through these initial stages of the grief cycle, and subsequently, became stuck in the denial phase. This outcome is the result of various contributing factors, which has been identified as themes supporting this end state.

All three interviewed survivors were in a state of denial, as they had not developed or were not equipped with constructive coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and anxiety caused by the retrenchment process. According to Chapman (2009), individual’s reactions to distressing events are as unique as a fingerprint. This is clearly demonstrated as the denial manifested in three forms, which will subsequently be discussed.

Fish bowl reaction

The first manifestation of denial was that of the ‘Fishbowl effect’ – this is characterised by the survivors experiencing a pervasive sensation of being under constant scrutiny from other employees affected employees in the organisation. The survivors are scrutinised as a result of their position within the company – whether it be hierarchical position or divisional position.

Although the mental process of denial cannot be observed directly, it can be inferred from verbal behaviour. To this effect, Cramer (1987) developed categories for identifying denial. Pertinent to the fish bowl effect are:

Statements of negation: An individual contradicts an action, wish or intention, which, if acknowledged, would cause discontent, pain, anxiety or humiliation.

“Again, you know, and then it seems almost like the fairy tale situation where I am ecstatically happy you know, you get your days where you just want to dart out of here and it is too much…”

Overly maximising the positive or minimizing the negative: Sizeable exaggeration or underestimation of a character’s quality, size, power, role and authority.

“I was involved, sitting in at the meetings with some of the directors and general managers…we did discuss some of the positions that might fall away…I was involved…but not the actual decision making.”

Survivors soon realise that working in this fishbowl, everyone scrutinizes what they are doing and because other employees can offer their critique, looking good becomes as important as doing the right thing. It appears that initially, the interviewees are intensely aware of the scrutiny and their role in the unpleasant exercise, however, in order to escape the anxiety that this creates; selected stimuli and observations are unconsciously denied.

“You are emotional when you – in our function you can’t be emotional, you need to kind of – your emotions need to be put to the side to stay professional.”

“So we were stretched, and I was stretched beyond that I thought that I could do or endure. But luckily we went through it.”

Further to this, in the fish bowl effect manifestation, considerable attention was given to the details of the issue as this served as a distraction – enabling the survivors to avoid the affective whole. This was clearly demonstrated by one survivor who insisted that the company did not communicate the financial specifics for the severance package. However, when I reviewed the company documentation, this seemed to be the one element that was clearly and consistently communicated. Kets de Vries and Balazs (1996, 1997) reported similar findings.

“I would have handled the process in such a way that employees knew exactly what the package entailed…know where you are at – let’s have a look at maybe, how does your Provident Fund look like. Keep more information, so that people can make a more informed decision.”

In the present study, denial appeared to be an extension of the initial avoidance response. When reality threatened the survivors directly, and when the behaviours of avoidance were no longer adequate, the survivors turned to denial. The difference between denial and avoidance is the difference between passivity and activity, or between the tacit and the overt (Gottlieb, 2004).

…however, the meeting was postponed on the first occasion, due to the participant being too busy on the specific day. The interview was re-scheduled – on this day, I had to remind the participant of the interview, yet the interview started 10 minutes late.

I found it rather disturbing that the participant was rather non-committal with some of the answers, not committing to any specific viewpoint, but rather skirting the issue as to not ‘tick’ anyone, thereby remaining on the fence. The participant seemed to take on the role of champion of the company, even though most answers pointed towards disagreement.

During the interview, she spoke freely about relevant retrenchment issues, but it left me with a feeling of superficiality, as the issues raised were addressed fleetingly (this seems to be a denial in itself?) and the topic was consistently changed after a few minutes, almost contradicting what she said earlier.

The change of topic occurred when discussions about emotions were further explored. It seems that the recall of intense emotional experience (negative) during the period of retrenchment creates feeling of anxiety that is denied and suppressed. Non-committal answers might be an attempt to deny negative experiences and or defend the company out of a sense of loyalty to organisation or defending own role in retrenchment.

In the fishbowl state, the survivor is so preoccupied with doing the right thing and looking good – to both management and employees – that they consistently deny and bury their own emotional responses to retrenchment. This manifestation of this denial encompasses the alteration of language and logic to justify their behaviour (Cramer, 1987; Stein, 1997).

“Looking back on the entire process and where we are now, a year later – you think it was a good business decision?

At the time yes, – for the business to continue, because we didn’t know the economy was going to turn. Yes, I would say at that given point in time it could have been a good business decision.”

“…all affected people kind of made good business senseaˆ¦I don’t know if that makes any sense at all but made good business sense. So I think everybody would understand that none of this was a personal mission to get rid of anybody.”

It is possible that, as a consequence of prolonged denial in the fishbowl state, the survivor’s “reasonable argument and cognitive schemata might be discarded altogether, because those strategies are not sustainable and are unable to persuade others; at which time the survivor will merely refer to their feelings or emotions as the exclusive justification.” (Cramer, 1987).

Placing all your eggs in the downsizing organisation’s basket

It would seem that the strategies of retaining employees for the long-term have had negative, inadvertent consequences on the survivors – seducing employees into a co-dependent relationship with the organisation. The co-dependent employee’s sense of value and identity is based on pleasing someone or something else.

A lot of duality in this interview – unhappy at work, yet wishing to stay, also expressing regret at not being retrenched, yet sacrificing her relationship to perform responsibilities at work. Defending abuse from management, yet complaining about management style.

According to Noer (2009), benefits, services and office size are all advantages that reward seniority and tenure. In addition, Company X has in recent years placed more focus on employee wellness programmes, thereby channelling employees’ social patterns into organisationally endorsed activities. The result is that numerous employees have placed all of their emotional and social eggs in the organisational basket – as the retrenchments were implemented and the new psychological contract unfolded, the basket has been dropped, and, according to Noer (1993), resulting in a range of negative survivor symptoms, such as fear and anxiety and triggering co-dependent behaviours like control and denial.

The duality experienced could possibly be viewed as anxious denial – there seems to be a swing from one extreme to the other, as if she cannot consolidate these conflicting emotions and feelings and the anxiety that this is causing. This denial and need for control is verbalised / acted out in the desire to have been retrenched.

Due to the role that I fulfil on Organisation X, I have been privy to discussion about subsequent decisions made by this participant affecting / sacrificing her private life for the benefit of her career.

As previously discussed, the higher the organisational level, the stronger the denial tends to be. It is therefore not surprising that the interviewee who most strongly displays this manifestation of denial, is the highest ranking employee interviewed.

Although the concept of co-dependency will be discussed later in this section, it should be noted that previous research (Noer, 1993) indicated that co-dependants make themselves into permanent victims. It seems that perhaps this is the most salient characteristic of this manifestation of denial – by denying any other role other than that of the victim, the survivor has rejected their role and accountability as part of the senior management team of Organisation X, as well as rejecting activities that should have been undertaken as part of management responsibility. Thereby effectively denying the extent to which her lack of action contributed to negative impacts on others, specifically the affected subordinates. A possible explanation for this unconscious decision is that it is an attempt to avoid guilt, and possibly shame.

“…but with even like with subordinate I worked with, right until a week which before she moved, she didn’t really know what was going to happen to her. She was told, Divisional Manager said to me, we’ll maybe she would fit in with General Manager: XXX’s department. So I went back, said to Subordinate, please set up a meeting with General Manager: XXX – go speak to him, see what the job is all about. But nobody spoke to her – I spoke to her said, let’s make an appointment with General Manager: XXX….so nobody spoke to her, it wasn’t like a person or thing. I know with Subordinate, nobody came to speak to her to say – you know you are going to lose your position, but there is another position for you – this is what it entails or set up an appointment with General Manager: XXX or anything…I would have like to just walked with my people a little bit more, so that they’re not so unhappy.”

“There were lots of rumours – and think from that aspect, maybe they were not as open as they should have been.”

This is congruent to two of Cramer’s (1987) characteristic of denial, namely the denial of reality whereby the survivor avoids addressing something that would be unpleasant to think about, in this case the loss of her subordinate to another department as well as her abdication of responsibility as departmental head. Secondly, statements of negation where the individual contradicts an action, wish or intention, which, if acknowledged, would cause discontent, pain, anxiety or humiliation.

Further to this, and supporting the previous assertion of the strong denial of management responsibility, dissatisfaction with company direction, management credibility and long-term strategy were particularly strong amongst the most senior survivor interviewed, which is interesting as she is responsible for some of these functions.

“A lot of the instructions that were given are very short term. So, I think from an environment point of view, I just feel I’m not learning as much as I could have, because everything is now killing the fires and its short term strategies, so you don’t actually learn or develop and there is not time to develop as a person within the company.”

How would you describe your level of trust, in the management team of the company?…very low trust. Because if something goes wrong, they blame somebody else.”

This candidate is part of senior management, yet seems to feel ostracized. Perhaps this is the reason for her projections?

Further to the above, when psychological denial distorts reality, individuals are prone to make erroneous decisions or avoid complicated decisions and disregard serious problems; holding others responsible when things do not turn out as expected (Cramer, 1987). This finding is supported by subsequent verifiable information that became known to me recently as a result of the interview and my position within the organisation.

…one interviewee fluctuated between almost total denial of her accountability and role (as senior manager) in the retrenchment and repeated attempts “to bring about her own death” (Kubler-Ross, 1969) in the organisation. This self-sabotage took the form of non-performance, defiance when dealing with top management and ignoring communications.

Some aggravating factors to this denial reaction must also be noted – the first is the espoused value of the new psychological contract and secondly the presence of aggravating peripheral circumstances. These factors will be explored and discussed later in this section.

Keeping up appearances: coping by not coping

This manifestation is characterised by the minimisation of the overall effect that the retrenchment had on the survivors. Although feelings of uncertainty, stress and guilt had been experienced, there were some expressions of optimism and perceptions that Company X engaged in a tough, but necessary activity to get – or keep – the company on track toward profitability.

I think for anybody this is a very difficult exercise to go throughaˆ¦ there was not you don’t need to worry, it is never going to happen, you’re safe. There was never any of that false hope created. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all but made good business sense.”

“Unfortunately, as a business, this is the only way we can survive.”

This technique has been termed ‘denial of injuries’ by Gandolfi (2009) and pertains to survivors involved in the retrenchment process maintaining that retrenchment victims did not suffer any detrimental consequences. In the aforementioned study, this was the reaction where victims were “provided with generous severance packages”. The findings of the current study in consistent with this, as all interviewed survivors exhibited a manifestation of denial and without fail, referred to the generous severance packages.

“Well, I looked at the packages and I know that they were really good based on obviously you know what the packages based on – experience, based on years service and based on beginner service and all those sort of things.”

However, the denial is evident in the contradictions during the interviews, as well as during discussion that pertained to behavioural and affective responses during the retrenchment. This is congruent with two of Cramer (1987) identified characteristics of denial, namely:

Statements of negation: An individual contradicts an action, wish or intention, which, if acknowledged, would cause discontent, pain, anxiety or humiliation.

“Obviously I could not divulge that until the final decisions had been madeaˆ¦ when you are going through a structural change – there is this cloud of secrecy and certain people know what’s going on, and there is talking aˆ¦it was communicated to them [affected department], and it was done right down to the brutal truth.”

Unexpected goodness, optimism, positivity: nonchalance in the face of threats.

“The team is not quite where it needs to be yet, but certainly we pulling more together in terms of the transparencies and the cross functional support areas where we may be 5 years ago. I got to say the resizing exercise did a lot in terms of shaking up people’s foundations – where you thought you were so secure, everybody realized nobody is secure. But what changed it and what made this last resizing exercise so positive, is the way it was handled.”

These reported perceptions are complex and quite often contradictory. The same survivors who articulated sentiments of optimism also articulated strong sentiments of uncertainty, stress and changed work life perceptions. Uncertainty was most apparent in the continuous attempts to obtain the approval and validation of reactions from me, as if to establish whether the perceptions are ‘correct’, or perhaps to avoid confronting actions that causes guilt by perceiving this to be a common occurrence. It seems as if the survivors escaped dealing with their personal feelings by focusing on projected organisational outcomes. This is congruent to previous research (Noer, 1993) as well a variation on the fishbowl effect, where survivors focus on details to escape dealing with their personal feelings.

“The objectives were pretty clear and that was that we need to look at the functions within the department, and the main objective was not clearing heads, that was never the main objective. The main objective was look at the functions, how can we work and structure this department to work smarter. Not necessarily cheaper, but smarter and obviously ultimately – is there a possibility for the right sizing…the objective was never to get the heads of the headcount, never. Obviously you know long term wise it is a win- win situation for everybody.”

This particular manifestation seems to be exacerbated by previous experience of a retrenchment – possibly colouring the survivor’s frame of reference. The interviewee that displayed this manifestation most prominently has personally survived two previous retrenchments at Organisation X. Another interviewee who displayed this manifestation of denial – to a lesser extent – had survived one previous retrenchment at Organisation X and recalls that her father had experienced a retrenchment at his employer at the time.

I am left to wonder whether this positive attitude is genuine or whether the participant is still ‘keeping up appearances’ for the benefit of who perhaps top management perhaps. Is this denial (of damage done to others) a facade to hide feelings of being the executioner as the participant clearly indicated that she felt guilty for being picked to stay whilst other employees (in her department) became victims.

This reaction can possibly be attributed to repeated experiences of retrenchment resulting in ’emotional numbing’ (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1996), whereby the survivor starts to experience problems with a reduced capacity to feel. According to Kets de Vries and Balazs (1996), this defensive process is set in motion a state of affairs overflowing with painful emotions and psychological conflict. This reaction was used as a means to shelter the survivors from intolerable experiences and functions as a type off shut-off mechanism – this emotional shut-off is essentially the core of psychological denial as discussed in the introduction to this section. It appears as if the survivors resort to ‘doing’ to prevent experiencing.

One of the survivors went into great detail about her growth in the company, her flexibility with regards to long-term career goals, the positive relationships with both top management and Human Resources, and her perception of how other departments handled this process. In all of this, she never voluntarily referred to feelings. When specifically asked about her feelings and reactions during the time of retrenchments, she conceded that she did feel saddened by the process, but quickly added that this was reserved for after-hours and in general, she felt that it had been a process well handled.

What seems to be true for all of the participants is that their involvement in retrenchments is an activity that opposes their base belief about organisational life. Underlying this base belief is the psychological employment contract. These survivors have to cope with significant change at the same time as experiencing it.

Shared denial

Although the survivors engaged in the same basic defence mechanism, the expression of the defence took various forms. It is interesting to note that there are some shared reactions in the expression of denial, namely the denial of the survivors’ own expectation of the old psychological contract to hold true and the unfailing blaming of others for negative outcomes experienced. Each of these shared reactions will consequently be explored.

Denial of belief in old psychological contract

All of the interviewees espoused the values of the new psychological contract and advocated its importance in the new world of work, yet, all the interviewees demonstrated throughout the interview, that they have a very strong expectation that the old psychological contract is to hold true for them on Organisation X.

“…. I really would like to have an overseas assignment. Just to get exposure, because for me – is I want a long term relationship with Company X. I was quite happy here and I thought, well, I am happy to stay with Company X for the next 10 years. Whatever I wanted to develop, I would like to get to a General Manager level, learn as much as I can from the company….”

It seems that the survivors agree with the logic and the theory of the new psychological contract, but that this new way paradigm conflicts with their need for membership and would require a great mindset shift.

“I believe that most employees expect an organisation to look after them and that you will receive the benefits, or reap the benefits of hard work. But in reality, that does not work that way…I know that your psychological contract has changed during the course of the last few years, but still, I think that maybe employees want to be trained in such way that they can move on, out of the organisation, with more skills they what they come into.”

Despite strongly advocating the new psychological contract – the participant’s responses throughout the interview indicates a strong co-dependency on the company being researched. It seems as if the participant defines a (big?) part of herself by achievement / growth / future in / at the company being researched.

Also, this participant – perhaps more than the other participants’ espouses the values of the new psychological contract, yet looks at the organisation to provide growth and development, and feels betrayed and offended that the current situation impacted on her development.

The survivors’ denial of their belief in the old psychological contract could possibly be explained by the concept of co-dependence. The co-dependent changed their identity, denied their feelings and spend a substantial quantity of energy in an effort to control an alcoholic; shared the alcoholic’s addiction. The co-dependent does not notice the destruction that their denial causes to themselves and others – they were co-dependent with the alcoholic (Bekker, 1998; Noer, 1993)

According to Noer (1993), just “as a person can exist in a co-dependent state with another person in relation to an addiction, a person can also be co-dependent with an organisational system.” Employees of an organisation who have become co-dependent on the organisation, defines themselves to a large extent by their job. During a retrenchment, it is therefore not only their job that becomes vulnerable, but also their sense of worth, sense of relevance, identity and purpose.

This phenomenon could explain most, if not all, of the survivor experiences explored in this study. As discussed in section 3.3.4, the greater the sense of personal violation, the greater the susceptibility to survivor syndrome and destructive defence mechanisms. The perception of violation appears directly related to the degree of trust employees had that Organisation X will take care of them (Noer, 1993). The survivors all indicated that they definitely had the expectation of long-term employment at Company X, with the associated growth and development as ‘reward’ for their tenure and performance. The retrenchment experience seemed to be a rude wake-up call that this is in actual fact not the truth.

“There is no such thing as life-long employment. There is a classic saying, if you want loyalty, buy a dog. It is all good and well to be committed to a company, but there is no guarantee, not either way, that you are going to be with that company for a life-long commitment or that that the company is going to keep you on for a life-long commitment…once you heard that very clear definition that life owes you nothing and

Company X owes you nothing and I owe you nothing. That kind of inspired you to do more and to want more. You know, if I came in at age 17, turning 18 in February, that I was working, thinking I am just going to be a typist for the rest of my life and Company X going to keep me, keep me, you gonna have to want that little bit more ever so often. If you are not motivated, and if you are not accepting those challenges, there is no future for you here”.

Denying their belief in the truth of the old psychological contract, might serve two purposes:

By verbally acknowledging the value of the new psychological contract, they are espousing the message that is “expected” of them – due to their position within the company. As in the fishbowl effect manifestation, the survivors are seen to be “doing the right thing and looking good”;

By denying their belief in the truth of the old psychological contract, the survivors are attempting to avoid the painful reality – that this paradigm no longer holds true – by refuting their own truth by their words and actions.

Blaming of others

All interviewed survivors blamed other groups. In most cases, generic “management” were blamed or colleagues in organisation X, however, no interviewee assigned any blame for negative outcomes to themselves. Nevertheless, people tend to blame others – usually the next person up on the organisational chart – for what is a basic systemic change, beyond anyone’s control.

“But then, if I look at other areas that the same sort of exercises, and I don’t know if it is because it was handled poorly, that maybe their management wasn’t being honest or forthcoming with their people. Look at the XXX department – a huge mess. You know, where people left on the end of the month, and there was absolutely nobody trained to do those. If you’re ultimate goal is to get rid of people on downsize and get rid of people on a head count level – that is easy to do.”

This blaming phenomenon could be a form of projection that serves as a defence mechanism, assisting the survivor to confront their own survivor guilt by allowing the survivor to consider others as dysfunctional without experiencing the discomfort of realising that these views and feelings are their own. This allows the survivor to express disapproval of the other person, distancing themselves from their own dysfunction (Straker, 2009). This reaction has also been noted by previous researchers such as Noer (1993), Kets de Vries and Balazs (1996) and Appelbaum et al. (1997). Based on the preceding discussion, it is put forward that blaming others for whichever collection of consequences generally represents denial.

Contributory themes

As a result of the survivors’ inability to progress through the stages of grief and complete their mourning, the interviewed survivors remained in state of denial. Contributing to these responses and outcomes were the presence of aggravating peripheral circumstances and role conflict.

Role conflict

Beauchamp and Bray (2001) defines role conflict as referring to “the presence of incongruent expectations placed on a role incumbent”. The presence of role conflict exacerbating the effects of denial was evident amongst survivors. This role conflict related to the dual roles of being involved in the implementation of the retrenchment for the survival of Company X and the emotional effect that the aforementioned has on the survivor.

“You are emotional when you – in our function you can’t be emotional, you need to kind of – your emotions need to be put to the side to stay professional. So, you talk to people over the telephone, and they are emotional that side, you’re sitting on this side, and you know their affected – it is a difficult, difficult time.

It is possible that this role conflict also contributed to the extensive engagement in reasoning to justify retrenchments. This reaction is similar to what Noer (1993) described as the “Judas complex”. This reaction seems to allow the survivors to deny the negative impact of their actions on others.

“It is very difficult to keep your managers hat on and on the other side of the scale to put your humanitarian hat on….you had to come in