8 Tips on leading and downsizing through restructures

by Dec 6, 2019

  • Relentless and unexpected restructuring is challenging.
  • Engagement and constant communication with your people is key.
  • Stay and play or have an exit in mind.

This week, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced a “…wide-ranging public sector overhaul” – merging 18 government departments into 14, and removing 5 department heads from their positions. The message from the PM is that of a new era of the APS that will “bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people.”

It’s not surprising that the plan has critics inside the APS, who point at the creation of “super departments”, like what became the Department of Home Affairs, as ultimately a negative experience with none of the promised efficiencies being delivered.

It’s an interesting change path the the PM is proposing, particularly as the APS has historically been an institution that flat out resists such rampant and fast-moving change. But the Prime Minister seems to be steaming on nonetheless, and shooting for a fast turn around – changes are slated for February 1st, however ScoMo has suggested that some changes could happen as “soon as next week”.

If the private messages I am getting by text and DMs are an indication of how the restructures are being executed, it is fair to say that the management and leadership layers in the APS have not been prepared or supported in these announcements.

So this post is for you, dear leader – here’s how to go forward on unexpected restructures this close to Christmas. It can be done.

On restructuring:

  • Don’t forget to communicate what stays the same. People need an anchor in stormy seas, and a simple message of what is not changing can do that.
  • Engage with resistance – don’t seek to overcome. Resistance is normal, highly complex, and only feedback.
  • Build change capability within. This is unlikely your first restructure and is unlikely to be your last. What do you need to do to build internal capabilities for change?

On downsizing:

  • Dignity is the key word – your role as people leader is to interrogate every message to ensure that there is as much dignity as possible. Respect yourself, respect your managers, respect your employees, respect your clients, respect your community.
  • Ensure a united front. Now is the time that as a leadership team you need to unite, and ensure a parallel process when releasing information and key messages. You do not want your employees hearing things first on the radio/newspaper/ twitter/ facebook.
  • Engage with the background talk.  This is the informal conversations of change that can manifest in gossip, rumour, and hallway chats.  Engaging with the rumours allows clarification of incorrect information and guided sense-making. You can also get some very useful feedback.
  • Beware Survivor Syndrome. Those left after the downsizing need a lot of therapeutic listening and opportunities to grieve and heal. If not you are faced with higher stress, increased sick leave, increased intent to leave and reduced performance.
  • Protect your own team now. Create a compelling business case that demonstrates a Return on Investment (ROI). What is your value proposition?

Look, while restructuring, downsizing and rightsizing often comes as a shock and is often exasperating, it is worth noting, that you always have choice. If this is a standard way of operating in your organisation and you are just not comfortable surfing the waves, you can make an exit plan.

For more on dealing with the anxiety of change, check this post out. 


  1. Gail Severini

    Bravo and double down on DIGNITY … your people (those going and those staying) will love you and respect you for it. You ROCK Jen!

  2. Gail Severini

    Bravo and double down on DIGNITY … your people (those going and those staying) will love you and respect you for it. You ROCK Jen!

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