Threat of cuts demoralizes staff

Dear Joan:
Our University President has recently thrown out a campus wide memo regarding budget cuts and restructuring.  He states the campus must go to a ‘lean and mean’ model and proposes to cut at least 50-75% of administrative jobs within the year.  We (staff) have been asked for input and there have been numerous meetings regarding proposals to send to the Restructure Committee.
My question is this:  How do you keep staff motivated to do the work TODAY, and feel invested in their position, when our department head flat out states that three of four staff members sitting next to you WILL be gone in less than a year?
Our morale is in the tanker.
Instead of saying, ”We have a fire and I need your help to contain it and put it out,” he said, “The forest is blazing and half of you are going to die!” No doubt he has caused panic, paranoia and depression. He has also rung the bell for all the best performers, since they are more marketable and often the first to leave at signs of trouble.
Saber rattling is not a smart way to solve this problem. It sounds like he may be under significant pressure to reduce costs by his Board and, frankly, a cut of up to 75 percent tells me he let costs get out of control in the first place. Calling it a “lean and mean” model is not a wise choice of words. Inflammatory words do nothing to help the cause. “Lean”, yes, “mean,” no.
He would have been much smarter to first paint the financial picture for everyone and then issue a “let’s all pull together and find ways to cut costs so we can avert deeper cuts” message. Then he could have worked with the leaders (and their staff) to dig deep for cuts. Once that was done, he should have had a private planning session with his leaders to identify criteria upon which staffing reduction choices would be made. For example, a hiring freeze could come first and people who could retire early could be given incentives to leave. If more reduction was needed, it could be based on performance, seniority, non-essential positions, and so on.
One bright note is that managers have been asked for input. Hopefully you will get more opportunities to weigh in on alternatives. In the meantime, it is important to let people feel they have some sort of control over their lives.
Now that you are stuck with the frightened and demoralized employees, you will have to be a model of strength and confidence. They will need someone to look to for information, if not for reassurance.
Have a one-on-one meeting with each member of your staff each week, to provide coaching and guidance on their work and keep them focused. During the staff meetings, keep the ball rolling on work projects. In addition, hold weekly meetings to share any new information you may have. If you say nothing, they will fill the void with rumors and imagine the worst. Separate fact from fiction during these sessions. Keep your demeanor calm and steady. Although it is difficult, stay enthusiastic on current work projects and step up praise and individualized attention.
Your choice is either to avoid the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the work unit, or go up to it and touch it. I’m in favor of letting them discuss the gorilla, look it in the eye and realize they don’t have to be terrified.
To deal with the demon you may want to have a heart-to-heart conversation about each person’s short and long term career goals. Since the word is already out that some people may lose their jobs, you might as well face that fact head on. Ask people if they would like to have a career discussion with you. Make it clear to everyone before you have any career discussions that you are going to have this discussion as a preemptive move—not because you know something they don’t. Explain that the best way to feel calm during all this is to think through your options so you feel more in control.
You could ask them to complete some prework on what their strengths and development needs are, then schedule a session about ways they can strengthen their job skills. You may even feel comfortable telling them you would assist them if they did end up leaving. These steps are designed to help them feel supported and less alone and vulnerable.
In the end, there may be nothing you can do to prevent losing some of your people. In that case, rally the remaining troops and have a “planning retreat.” Give them a brief and contained way to vent about survivor’s guilt and the loss they feel. Then refocus on the future and how they are going to pull together to face the challenges ahead.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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