The Artistry of Difficult Decisions

The other day I had some trees cut down in my garden. My tree feller is an arborist who brought a sensitivity, wisdom and artistry to the task that I had not previously witnessed. He spoke of trees as living entities that needed to be treated with respect and care. He had to remove a number of ash trees that had been devastated by the ash borer beetle. To balance this, he is creating an ash tree seed bank, so that when the scourge is eliminated, he can begin the process of replanting ash trees. He suggested that I grow ivy in the stump of a damaged red oak that he had to cut down. The stump could still provide nourishment for new life. His mission is to try and plant another tree for every tree that he removes.

I am not equating trees with humans, but for some reason this conversation made me think of how we handle the difficult decision of letting employees go. There are abundant stories of how these decisions can be profiles in cowardice, cruelty, disrespect and ignorance.

A triangle of impact bears witness to these decisions: the people being let go; those remaining; the individual in charge of the letting go.

 40% of Americans have been laid off or terminated according to a 2022 survey with significant negative psychological and physical effects. In addition, those that remain can experience increased job dissatisfaction, decreased organizational commitment and reduced job performance. Few people enjoy laying people off, and although the sympathy barometer for them may be low, they too can develop negative coping mechanisms such as emotional distancing.

Physicians can experience the full spectrum of these situations as they deal with the impact on their patients’ health; their role as a leader of a team organization;  and in the case of being laid off themselves.

The Neuroleadership Institute developed a model Known as SCARF®, that details the 5 areas of social threat and reward. All of these domains are impacted after a layoff and it behooves leadership to address them with care. They are:


Status is immediately impacted by a lay-off. A one-on-one conversation can mitigate some of this loss as it shows that an employee was respected and valued by the organization.


Helping employees prepare for what comes next may diminish the sense of floundering with an uncertain future.


Putting some control back into employee’s hands by offering choices about handling the lay-off, however small, can be empowering.


Acknowledging the connections between those employees remaining and those leaving and finding creative ways to address these relationships can be invaluable.


Addressing notions of justice is of prime importance. This encompasses all aspects: distributive (allocation of resources and benefits), procedural (transparency and logic in lay-off decisions) and interactional (paying attention to dignity and well-being). This can go a long towards mitigating the negative downward spiral for all concerned.

As I said, I am not equating trees with human beings, but we need to always remember that when we take something away, however necessary, we can also create opportunities for respect, restoration, and renewal.

A Case Study of Handling Lay-offs:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top