It’s Lonely at the Top

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I have been the executive director of a small nonprofit for almost two years now, and the organization has been doing well — low staff turnover, making ends meet, and we have an incredible middle management team in place. Staff seemed content and worked well together. In my time here, I have had to let two staff members go for behavior issues that were well documented. We got through it. However, last week I had to lay off one of our full-time managers because of some unexpected shortfalls in revenue. It was a difficult decision to make and not one I took lightly. I expected there to be emotions among the staff as many of them are friends outside work.

However, in a staff meeting, I was confronted with all kinds of accusations about the layoff, from my being corporate and uncaring to having a history of “firings.” I expected them to take it personally but did not prepare myself for this kind of resentment. I listened and acknowledged their feelings but was also surprised they didn’t understand that we had to preserve resources for everyone’s benefit. What can I do or not do to help build back trust in our team?

— Anonymous

You are running an organization that is, mostly, doing well, but now you’re dealing with one of the many challenges of leadership. It’s easier for everyone to be happy if things are going well. When there are layoffs, those who survive the cuts are reminded of the precariousness of at-will employment. While the members of your staff don’t have all the context for why you were forced to make this decision, they are entitled to their feelings, which are largely born of fear and sadness. They have questions. Are more layoffs on the horizon? Who’s next? What criteria are you using in deciding who will be laid off? Was there truly no other way to address the unexpected shortfall?

Building back trust will take time, but it is absolutely possible. Allow people to have their feelings as you chart the path forward. It won’t help matters to over-explain that you did what was best for everyone’s benefit because, while that may be true, there’s at least one person who will beg to differ.

Moving forward, communicate openly and consistently about major organizational changes, and don’t assume how people will respond. Listen to their concerns without being defensive. You also need to make peace with knowing that sometimes, as the leader, you are going to make decisions that are difficult, are unavoidable and won’t please everyone. With power comes responsibility. With difficult decisions come consequences.


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