When I was little, I loved the Cinderella story. The idea of the dashing prince and magic of love-at-first-sight played a large part in my affinity to the fairy tale; however, as much as the mystery and romance pulled me in, the story also catered to an as-yet untapped gravitation toward process design and efficiency. (Geek alert!)

Truly, how could Cinderella, especially on the day of the ball, do her regular chores, the tapestries and the draperies, and the floors, the mending and the sewing, and whatever else the stepmother dreamed up and THEN make her dress for the ball? I mean, HOW did she do it all?

While this is a good question to ponder, you may still be wondering about how much Cinderella and her story have to do with cost cutting.

Well, two weeks ago I was reading yet another story in the business papers extolling the virtues of a financial institution going through yet another reduction in workforce. The reduction, though widely known to have been coming, seemed to carry with it that nonchalance of a big organization working for the good of the big organization and unaware of what it was about to lose. That’s how the article read, anyway. Letting people go betters the bottom line in the short term, but I wonder about the long-term costs. I wondered how the company might have thought about that, and then I remembered our favored princess.

See, I have come to realize that Cinderella was a victim of downsizing as well. When her father was around and bringing in big money, she was happy enough to help out around the house. However, when the castle came on hard times and her father was no longer present, critical members of the chateau team were given their walking papers. The separation may have been amicable – the fairy tale isn’t specific about that. Perhaps the cook, the gardener and the maids received outplacement help. It’s possible.

However the dismissal occurred, what we do know is that Cinderella became the last (wo)man standing. While the cost savings had been achieved with the loss of the “redundant” employees, what the chateau and its leadership did not lose was the expectation that the work continue on as it had with a full staff. Dishes still needed to be done, meals prepared, livestock fed, floors washed. Through it all, Cinderella is fabled to have kept her cheery disposition. If she kept a good humor, then she is truly my heroine; however, it seems more realistic to think that she might have had her moments of doubt during those long days scrubbing floors and beating tapestries that really didn’t need cleaning.

Perhaps she did get frustrated because the timelines were so tight. Maybe she felt attacked when she missed a deadline for the dinner bell or breakfast was late. What about that bath for Lucifer? Pretty sure nobody wants to give a cat a bath, much less one named after the devil.

She might have been unhappy. She might have been looking for an escape. My guess is that none of that mattered because the poor maiden was so busy working three full time jobs due to lack of resources that she didn’t even have time to update her resume.

If Cinderella were truly happy, when the miraculous opportunity came to leave her overworked and understaffed position, wouldn’t she have tried to stay?

But she was unhappy and when space and time cleared just enough to open the gate to that garden, there was her fairy godmother (recruiter?? Coach??), ready to buff her up and send her off to Prince Charming.

The stepmother never saw it coming and in one fell swoop watched her last employee voluntarily walk out the door and all the institutional knowledge along with her. What if, in a panic, the stepmother hired consultants to help her through the resource emergency and then, finding her savings almost depleted, let the consultants go in lieu of the less-expensive contractors? How would she have responded to the continued extensive ramp-up time and project delays as they continued causing much consternation to her creditors? Eventually, to save the chateau-entity, she might have divided the abode into condos and sold half to some venture castle-ists in town. As a consolation, perhaps she would have turned entrepreneur, opening up a craft brewery and bier garden out back with her two daughters.

This is my guess. I have no idea what she did after Cinderella left. Sources are not clear on that one.

My guess for Cinderella?

Cinderella lived out her days in the castle with the Prince doing work she enjoyed with a team of resources who were as invested in the outcome as she. The kingdom became known as one that cared about its people above all else and the royal couple grew in beauty and favor for the rest of their lives and they all lived happily ever after.

Yes, just a fairy tale, I know. Not all employee reductions are like this. Not all employees left behind feel like this. I get it. What I wonder is if we all, Cinderellas and Stepmothers alike, were to be authentic about the aftermath of a significant layoff, would we really expect that real people could keep pace with work that was designed for a pre-layoff environment? Or are we trying to live a modern day fairy tale?

Dear Cinderellas and Cinderfellas, what are you waiting on? Are you trying to keep your cheery disposition and your can-do attitude at work while other areas of your life wait beyond the gates of the garden? Stop talking to mice and birds for a moment and decide where your boundary will be. Draw the line of demarcation and either make a way to be authentically cheery or find a way to your own Charming place. You are not a slave. You can still have your heart’s desire.

Stop beating the tapestries and start doing work that matters to you.

Step-parents, are you aware that your best and brightest, those who keep the chateau running day and night, those you ask to keep the same production levels though the workforce is 2-3 times smaller, may one day find their Prince Charmings and walk out the door with critical institutional knowledge?

Lift up your heads from your concerns of the day and be aware. Be aware of your people and aware of the longer term. Do you know or have you asked your employees how late they are working? If you are assuming everyone is ok, risk being a vulnerable leader and ask your people how they are. Seek their advice and apply it. Set the example by logging off at a reasonable hour and leaving your desk for the little league game. Show them that taking a risk to leave work behind for an hour or two is worth it and see if you keep your people longer or, at least happier, longer.

Pay your team more than lip service: Don’t tell people they matter to the company; show them they matter to you.

Step-people, you have bosses and bottom lines and I think we all get that. This kind of shift in focus of investment in the lives of people won’t start with your bosses and those who report to high-stakes shareholders. It has to start with you and your Cinder-folk and work its way up.

Questions remain equally for everyone involved: How much does the chateau matter to you? Are you ready to start drawing some boundaries and laying a path to the garden?

There is risk, yes. You might end up going back into the Chateau and mopping another floor. The devil you know can feel familiar and safe. Go scrub that cat if you must. We know how to survive with what we have lived with before. It’s ok. You can take your time and pave the path when you’re ready.

Living with what we know can make use ready to push forward to new things further down the road.

But you could just as well end up in the garden.

With a pumpkin.

That changes into a carriage.

That whisks you away to a future more fulfilling than you dreamed.

It could happen….