You’re Fired! Navigating the stress and fear of company layoffs: lessons from the research

It seems like every day I’m reading about another company enduring massive layoffs. In this environment of fear and change how can leaders (and anyone really!) navigate the tumultuous times that disruption brings?

A fascinating study of the company that is often cited as enduring one of the worst periods of disruption, Illinois Bell Telephone, may hold the answers.

Back in 1975, Dr. Salvatore Maddi at the University of Chicago was interested in studying people who thrived under high levels of stress. His friendship with then Vice President, Carl Horn at Illinois Bell Telephone allowed him and a team of researchers almost unheard-of access to subject supervisors, managers, and executives to a battery of psychological questionnaires, interviews, observations, and medical exams.

Six years into the study the US federal court ordered the deregulation of the monopoly that was the Bell System, dismantling work norms, and nearly every policy in the company. Managers sometimes had as many as 10 new supervisors within a 12-month period. Strategies, job descriptions, and company goals, all seemed adrift with no one really having a clear idea of what was going on.

In that year IBT downsized nearly ½ of its employees.

Perhaps unsurprisingly during this massive upheaval, roughly 2/3 of the people in the study broke down physically, mentally, and emotionally. There were heart attacks, strokes, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and divorces….

But this is where a real shift can occur.

Because what about the other third of the people from the study?

No matter if they were let go from the company or stayed with IBT, they THRIVED.

Let me repeat that because if you find yourself in the often-unenviable positions of firing people or being fired, this is something to hang on to:

Under great stress, there is an opportunity for everyone, with the right stress mindset to thrive.

Here are the big difference between those that thrived (those I’ll refer to as fearlessly adapted) and those that struggled:

  • Locus of control: The fearlessly adapted took an active approach, controlling what they could in the future and letting go rather than remaining fixated on anything that was gone from the “good old days.”
  • Focus on the future: Instead, of passively wondering, “why do bad things happen to me,” the adaptive third took an active approach that looked forward by asking “what good things can I do when bad things happen?”
  • Challenge Attitude: Rather than seeing change as a threat, the fearlessly adapted were able to label the experience as a challenge, getting curious about what new things they might learn in the face of this opportunity.


The shifts seem small and simple. Too simple in fact to have produced such drastic results. But study after study continues to confirm the way we think about stress (is it a threat or a challenge?), affects the questions we ask, the attitudes we take, the behaviors we employ, and ultimately the outcomes we experience.

So even while external circumstances might not feel within your control, there is a path forward that leads to great adventure if you’re fearless enough to take it.

To find out more about how fearlessly adaptable you are (and which areas you could learn to grow in), venture over to my quiz for a more personal experience.

Until next time, stay fearless friends!

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