Are You Up In The Air?

May 29, 2020

change management processI saw some postings over the last few weeks about some layoffs or firings (whatever “correct” term is to you) being done virtually over Zoom or some other medium due to the restricted travel and many working remote. It brought me back to a movie from the past with George Clooney called Up In The Air. The firings and in particular this movie, had me reflecting on change management.


Maybe you have seen it, but in the movie, Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a corporate consultant type of guy whose firm was hired to “manage transitions”. In other words, Clooney and the firm would help facilitate layoffs for corporations and meet with the impacted people to break the news as well as cover details of the packages they would receive and help them in general with their transition. Or in other maybe simpler words, Clooney fired people, but him and his firm also dealt heavily with change management and helping people process the abrupt changes and transitions in their life.


Clooney was masterful in the character as he was a moth talker who generally made the person across the table get calm after the news and discuss with them what their next steps would be. It was this personal connection that he made with the people that helped make the transition easier and help people see a path forward. It was his job and he was good at it. But his firm was also looking at ways to cut costs. Enter Natalie Keener (played by Anna Kendrick) who has been promoting doing the terminations via video conferencing which could save money and time by being able to use technology to scale the firms efforts faster and broader. So flash to today where terminations are happening via Zoom.


Of course, Ryan (Clooney) sees they downside of this, a pair may one being he won’t be able to travel and do his work, but also sees the technology solution as impersonal and low in empathy. He sees the inability to make the connections with people and help them process the change. Of course, after Natalie joins Ryan on some of the trips to see the process, the new method is tested with mixed results. Ryan’s predictions are accurate, as it is harder for communication and connections to be made via video.


That program was eventually paused in the movie and Ryan continued with the traditional ways of doing his work. The flash to today doing layoffs via Zoom was a reminder of this movie and even given the situation of COVID today, it looks very impersonal indeed to hear about these layoffs being done via video call, and not even being done one to one in some cases but with groups of people together. That just feels wrong.


It’s another reminder of how critical empathy is in our leadership and the importance of making connections with people, even when difficult situations drive decisions and news we don’t always want to share. Are we being as sensitive as we can in communicating and connecting with people in tough times? Are we doing all we can to help and support people?


It’s also a reminder from a change management or improvement perspective that you have to understand the process or current state well enough first before making changes. In the case of the movie, Ryan was sharing how he thought the new technology solution would present challenges and should be thought out more. This was an example of not listening to a seasoned employee. Natalie didn’t really understand the current process well enough yet was advocating to move to the technology solution quickly, which the firm’s owner (played by Jason Bateman) did.


Are we listening to our people? Do we understand the current process well enough before we embark on major changes? In this case in the movie, the technology solution was eventually paused after some questionable outcomes, including one woman committing suicide after being fired via video. Others cried on the video call and both Natalie and Ryan struggled to console them. We need to understand the current process before changes but also the ramifications that could impact others.


Up In The Air is a great movie and presents a good reminder on leadership, change management, and continuous improvement. Especially in times like this where it seems video calls seem to be a 'thing' now and can present a logical path to doing things we may have done in person previously and maybe given some more detailed thought to. Think about it deeper first.

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