I have seen many kinds of unexpected and difficult machinations take place with regard to workforce planning and sizing. Sometimes the best intentions are undermined by rapidly changing business realities (recessions, unexpected competition, and R&D gamble that didn't pay off, etc).
A couple of years ago, a VP who was very upset with her inability to backfill critical positions in her organization gave "me" (really the company) an ultimatum: If the executive staff doesn't make good on their headcount promises, I won't be proactive with performance managing people (managing a low performer either up-or-out) and I won't be picky with who I hire, since it's better to fill an open position immediately rather than seek a top level candidate and risk losing the open position in a budget battle.
I was sympathetic to her frustration but it demonstrated a fundamental lack of business acumen.
The CEO staff had just received revised guidance to engage in more rigorous prioritization of their workforce and their work — and to find more lower-criticality activities that we could let drop, to ensure we could take care of the highest priority stuff.
The frustration on the part of the downstream leaders, like the VP I was speaking with, was understandable. They had particular plans, and obligations, and budgets they were working with. They had particular commitments from the leadership that even when those budgets got squeezed, there would "always be backfill if you manage out low performers" (for example). But then those rules, and commitments, and plans suddenly changed -- for reasons no one could foresee nor control.
There were hundreds of "reqs" (requisitions) for open positions in the org in question -- yet the org in question was suddenly over budget. So everything was put on hold, closed, or denied. Even those positions that were "promised to never be closed or denied."
But here's the thing: If I were the CEO staff member, or the VP I was working with was, we'd probably put the breaks on everything until it could all be sorted by priority, too. Regardless of what promises we made. Because it would be the right thing to do.
There's no way to juggle all those open positions, and the implications of each one being opened or closed, in one's head. You need to stop and analyse, and not dig yourself into an even deeper hole by leaving anything open, while you do it. Maybe we would only get to proceed with a tiny percent of those reqs -- essentially borrowing against future attrition. Maybe after looking at the impact of the hiring decisions we need to make, we'd realize that it would not be wise from a company perspective to follow through on even the backfills we promised.
It isn't a pleasant situation. It makes the executive staff look like they are not following through on their promises and commitments to their teams. But it might well be the right thing to do for the company as a whole. That's why a leader's job is not easy. She's got to get it very close to right -- which is to say "as little wrong as possible." And she doesn't have the luxury of relying on rules, or promises, or plans, when the business fundamentals shift and don't respect those artificial constructs.
So I advised the VP to provide data about what will fall off the list of work to be covered, if we didn't make the hires she flagged as critical. I recommended she leave aside whether they were "promised." Promises are less persuasive than reality, and demonstrate a fundamental selfishness, or at least a myopia, that undermines credibility. Data was the key for decision-making, especially now.
The message: If under current staffing we could not reasonably cover particular tasks that we believed we should, or that our internal partners believed we should, or that our external customers believed we should, such facts are our input into the decision making process. Then we let the executive staff make the decision about resource allocation (and therefor, work prioritization). And then we communicate the decision to the impacted stakeholder(s), and we abide by it. It's not a quick process, and it's not an easy process. And it's always iterative. We make our best calculation, move forward, get more data, and adjust. I don't envy any leader this task. By it's very nature, everyone is unhappy.
But I hastened to remind the VP: It's not personal, it's not whimsical, it's not arbitrary. If you act like it is, you are sunk.
Here's the thought experiment, putting the VP in the exec staff member's shoes: In good faith you promised 100 reqs for backfilling people who were managed out, and verbal offers were made on 75 of those. Due to circumstances outside your control, you only end up with 50 positions you can hire for. What do you do? I submit: You don't approve the first 50 that cross your desk. You assess them all and decide which are the least damaging to the business overall to close/not fill.
Of course that's not the only answer: You could take the first 50; you could tell everyone to re-open the positions in lower cost geographies; you could hire all 100, and then ask people to manage out low performers to balance the books; you could play a game of chicken and hire against project attrition; etc. But I suspect you'll agree that prioritizing work based on the current reality is the right way to proceed.
It's our leadership's job, with our help, to figure that out, and execute it. It's got very little to do with commitment and trust, and a whole lot to do with life being messy.