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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Lose Your Job without Being Fired

I never expected an epiphany from an Englishman over pancakes in a central Pennsylvania diner.

My friend and I were meeting, as we did periodically, at our favorite restaurant -- appropriately named Brothers -- to laugh, gossip, and counsel each another. It was his turn to disentangle my life.

He said, “Your blessing and bane, Richard, is that you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whoa! He signaled the waitress for more coffee.

Being affirmed for comforting the afflicted was humbling. But the second comment about afflicting the comfortable got my brain cylinders firing. I realized that’s really what I do as a professional communicator and change instigator:
I craftily tell clients what I heard them tell me so they understand what will happen when they try to tell others.
The echo frees them, sometimes stuns them, occasionally saddens them, and either immediately or later drives them to fight or flight, usually the latter – though sometimes flight eventually turns to fight in subtle ways. Change is uncomfortable. I create discomfort to create change.

Are you also an afflicter? If yes, you’re probably not a whiner or a crusader; you’re just unsettled and unsettling. Fortunately, you are what entrenched organizations need, especially in tough times. Unfortunately, there are bosses and colleagues out there who don’t know what to do with you.

3 strange disrupters that could get you into trouble

1 Performance
This seems like an odd disrupter. Don’t we get rewarded for performance? You would think so. But some departments, even whole organizations, seem prone to generating more heat than light – that is, creating the appearance of progress without being accountable for tangible results.

Four hours of work gets inflated to eight hours, grumbling surfaces whenever a new assignment comes in, and problems consume more time than possibilities.

In such an environment, good performers disrupt mediocrity.
    If you inadvertently upstage members of the team by producing an outstanding piece of work, they will be impressed, envious, and won’t forget.
    If you diplomatically suggest at a staff meeting an idea you have about reprioritizing or restructuring for greater impact, your boss will appreciate your idea and feel slightly upstaged.
    And, silly as it sounds, even if you regularly meet deadlines, your boss may not have thought through the sequel to the assignments he gave you and now doesn’t know what to do with the results. He procrastinates, you wait, and when you ask for an update more than once, he gets testy because you’re … well, pushy.
You will get a merit increase for outstanding performance. However, you may have been moved one ring out from the center for the pain you imparted.

2 Reasonableness
What baffles you is that the ideas and changes you propose seem so obvious, so simple, and so doable and yet never gain any traction in the organization.

Take, for instance, your cost-saving, streamlining idea to move a particular administrative process online. Sounds reasonable. However, support staff worry about what they will now do, yet they don’t speak up. And your boss? She’s uneasy that the fat weekly report won’t show up in her in-box, regardless if she was reading it or not. But she can’t admit that. So, your suggestion goes to committee.

Then, one of your work buddies pulls you aside at lunch and suggests that, though folks admire you, you might want to stop trying to change everything and just focus on the work at hand. Don’t be getting people worried unnecessarily, he says.

Move back one more ring.

3 Professionalism
Sometime during the first year of your new job, you realize that the currency of your education and expertise, which landed you the position and, you thought, credibility and authority, didn’t end up buying you much.
  • As the communication director, maybe you turned the organization’s publications into a portal in a culture where publications are still sacred.
  • As the new lawyer, you closed loopholes to protect the organization only to hear that some in management considered you unrealistic and inflexible.
  • As a freshly-minted MBA in operations, you recommended a systems change to decrease inventory costs, and then saw the suspicious looks of veteran production managers.
Sure, you get nods for smarts, but you also get demerits for always taking the side road. You’re not considered a team player. You are now on the outside.

What often happens to most nice disrupters (a.k.a change agents) is that they get marginalized. No one can find – or admit -- fault, yet no one completely warms up to you. The boss likes your affability but not your subtle intimidation. He can’t fire you for cause and, besides, he doesn’t want to look like he made a mistake hiring you. He hopes you might consider leaving, though he can’t suggest that.

Sometimes this malaise lasts for years until, finally, some fortuitous opening occurs: you get squeezed by an inflated ethical issue; you get blamed for some executive gaffe, or a budget crunch hits. Then, you are likely to be reassigned or offered an attractive severance. In other words, you don’t get fired, you just lose your job.

I know this all sounds bleak, but it’s too real for too many talented individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time in their careers. If you’re caught in this vise, be encouraged.

5 Affirmations
  1. You are an instigator for change because you are wired to serve people not processes. Just be sure you check yourself regularly to prevent frustration from turning instigation into aggravation.
  2. Your colleagues do like you -- really. It’s just that you raise the questions they have tried to repress. With kids in college and fear of job loss, they worry more about security than options.
  3. You are in your current position to increase your professional value, which adds to the value of your employer whether or not some people see it that way.
  4. You wish the world acted reasonably, but you are a change instigator because you are intuitive. You perceive and understand what others cannot. It’s a gift. Treasure it.
  5. Your resume is your journal of growth. Add to it regularly.

Richard Skaare 02.25.09


Karen Mulholland said...

Good insights - this helps me make sense of something that happened 20 years ago, that I'd never sorted out. Thanks for the moment of clarity!

Anonymous said...

I understand this better than one might think. This, also, is somewhat true for those of us who wake up unemployed every morning, i.e., the self-employed. This is especially tough on all the creative types out there who tend to think outside the box.

I enjoy the article very much. As the older generation here in Texas might say, "I want somemore of that!"

Warren Gale

Greg Silsby said...

Once again, evidence you have been there, experienced that and escaped with little more than your T-shirt. Strange but true: the values that impressed those who hired you can return to leave impressions of another kind on your posterior.

gilliant said...

Goodness. I think I've had an epiphany! Thankyou.

Emma Hamer said...

Richard, you've done it again. I Llove reading your posts. I'm forwarding this one to at least 4 of my executive coaching clients - they need to hear the affirmations. And I need to work with them on overcoming the 'reactions' to their ideas and actions. Was it not Sun Tzu who said: "To overcome your opponent, you must first understand him" - well, this helps my clients understand the often baffling reception good ideas get.

Dena said...

ooo-eee-ooo . . . You described, in perfect detail, my tenure at the job from which I was just released. So sad to understand that my experience is actually an epidemic; this helps explain the mediocre state of Big Business today. In this new era of change and hope, as the 19th Century business model (automotive, investment banking, etc.) is in its death throes, there is hope that we change agents will find ample opportunity to drive emerging (creative, innovative) business models for the 21st Century. Thank you for this insightful post, especially the bonus affirmations!

Anonymous said...

OMG, this helped my self-esteem immensely. I have gone over in my head what I could have possibly done different prior to my being laid off six months ago. Thank you for this article. In retrospect, it's exactly what was going on and why I had so many problems with getting things done. Thanks for helping me to see straight again and feel good about what I was trying to do. Their loss, not mine!

Anonymous said...

Well, i would not like to work in such conditions. Even if i need to bring money at home, i would not accept everything either. This helped me to get a stronger mind, and success.
I would not spend too much time thinking that i could change this or that, if it is not possible or not accepted by the boss. If the boss wants to stay "small" he can.
Like Whoopy Goldberg said it so perfectly : "People are dying, because they have nothing to eat in their country. I tell them this : "LEAVE" !!!"
Waking up unemployed is not a nice situation, no big words needed to explain that. But as long as i can walk, i have the choice to move somewhere else. Better move than cry about a situation i can't change.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'd love to see a future article on "How to Respond To A Frenemy In The Workplace." I had a person (that I originally hired) ask me for my thoughts one day, present my ideas in a meeting to execs, get promoted, and eventually spearhead my layoff. I am a quiet person so she probably thought she could get away with it, which she did.

Anonymous said...

I am going to agree - and disagree. Many of the adverse reactions could easily be attributed to lack of strategy, communication style, and failure to get stakeholder buy-in.

You aren't really a change-maker and instigator if the only thing you accomplish is getting yourself fired or marginalized.

Anonymous said...

Interesting insights. You've described my current tenure quite accurately.

Anonymous said...

Wow..just wow! You described my last position perfectly!! I was hired to get things done because the organization had trouble completing anything. I did get quite a bit accomplished that they had been unable to for five years. But....got laid off at the end of August.

At least now I know I am not alone and I am not crazy!

Now....how can I find a job where my drive, energy and enthusiasm are actually appreciated and wanted?

Andrijana said...

I fully agree, but the text does not change the fact that change agents face quite a lot of uncertainty in their lives.

Neither people nor organizations change unless they are not ready to change.

If we leave academic insight, my opinion is that change in organizations happens only when there is a strong pressure from external factors and the same becomes a matter of life and death. This change is often championed and protected by the CEOs, and it is the only time that change actually happens, because and only because, of the position power of the champion under serious pressure.

I am very resentful to current romantic perception about the Change Agents. They are just people, whose enthusiasm, intelligence and altruism is abused by the companies whenever they require someone to take the first stroke of the change they like to initiate. Change Agents receive that first stroke because they work with the people, they seldomly receive anything exept bad memories, disappointment and low self-esteem.

If you share this destiny, we should at least get paid more for the hours spent on self-doubt and in uncertainty, wondering where we did wrong when we didn't.

Anonymous said...

I agree! Team work makes a change agent a leader. A smart change agent will slowly build a team of people that will take his or her side on a major change in the company. As a change agent you need to disguise your approach and win the confidence of higher ups at a very slow pace. Don't rock the boat until you are in the right position to make change happen.

Zoe said...

This happened to me, but I was 'let go' because I actually put in eight client-charged hours each day against long-timers' four (so many coffee breaks!)

The knives came out, complaints from staff started flowing, those with an inside track to the CEO had private conversations... then bam! I was out the door.

I'm now too jaded to work in companies. I would rather consult and choose my own time to spend with mediocre people.

Anonymous said...

As with many other posts, this so describes my current position. I grew my business experience as an employee of a software technology company which was constantly changing. My current employer is so small and every time I try to implement any changes to improve what we are doing, the executive in charge does not have the backbone to openly support it, even though he has the authority. Thank you for a well written article. It is helping me understand my situation better.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Been there! You summed up Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, by Dr.s Babiak and Hare. Granted, not all "steal someone's ideas then get the idea-originator fired while only working 20 hours/week" people are psychopaths... but the book lays out scenarios similar to what's outlined in this article, why/how unethical folks succeed, and why the altruistic, hard working employees remain perplexed/get fired... which, in my opinion, may be why a business lacks innovation and/or why corruption (remember those promoted unethical people?) seeps in. If you can't shake the shock of such an experience, visit the following site written by a PhD studying bullies in the work place. All-in-all, if you're not the complacent type and you work in a dog-eat-dog enviornment, watch out... better yet, get out. That company does not deserve you.

Michael Heavener said...

Sounds all too familiar. I took a short-term contract to re-create a training course. I revitalized it, focused its curriculum, made it interactive, and gave it an online reference library. It got very high marks from the first group to attend. And I failed -- miserably. Turns out the organization wanted desperately to kill the course. Did they tell me that? ... no way! When it succeeded, they had to hire a full-timer to run it (another budget line item). I might have wanted that job, but my track-record made me the worst possible choice -- a leader and a success.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I joined one of the world's most admired companies a few years ago. I exceeded all performance expectations but I could never get any traction although was liked and admired by my peers. My function I realized after a while was not valued but what was valued was process for process's sake. Can you guess where I was?

Bill Smith said...

Thank you for writing this.

Bill Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb S. said...

This an excellent, informative piece. It's definitely a keeper.

Stephen Hinton said...

This is a very good insight. Thank you very much for your clarity.

Anonymous said...

Boy, can I relate to this!
I'm one of those "serial change agents" who is often ostracized for seeing the forest through the trees and wanting to improve the landscape. Surrounded by mediocrity, and wanting to do the right thing for my organization I am often the object of passive aggressive actions....
Well done, bravo!

Jan Thomas, The Communication Heretic said...

Thank you! I now understand the nagging "what went wrong?" of my previous position!

tl james said...

WOW! Thanks for this insightful article. I might be "Losing my job" as we speak. Now I can recognise it.

tl james

Linda Bowman said...

This is right on the money and great advice during this time. Thanks for mentoring your fellow communicators!

Anonymous said...

Good description of something I've seen more than once. Unfortunately, you can't predict how it will play out. I was hired into a position once by a VP who chose me in large part because of the status quo-challenging, creative, type-A aspects of my personality. Unfortunately, he left the company, and those aspects of my personality are no longer valued or championed.

Anonymous said...

Two comments: How to get buy-in? I agree it helps.

Second: For the person whose ideas were stolen, if you were in the meeting, one mentor advises saying "How wonderful we think alike".

In the future, you will probably think of ways to let a Frenemy know you will get back to her, say, in email with a cc: to someone who won't mind being copied so there is a witness, if you are pulsed privately for ideas . . .

Sometimes survival in an organization is about meeting people's unspoken needs, or not challenging them . . .

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