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Demotion is a bitter pill to swallow

Text, tear and color modification by Franke James, MFA.; cartoon man with open mouth ©istockphoto.com/ MirekP

Dear Office-Politics,

I work for a government agency where the Executive Director is a political appointment, rather than a hire based on knowledge and experience.

Since this Director started, it has become obvious that he holds in small regard employees who have advanced program technical knowledge and skills, unless those employees are in a management position. This I firmly believe stems from his lack of experience in what we do and how difficult the work is. The cultural climate at our agency has become one that revolves around the power of management and the “executive team” (the new name for our top administrators). The book our Executive Director most often quotes from is “From Good to Great”. The concept that appalls me the most in this book deals with management “shaking things up” by getting the wrong people off the bus, and the right people on. Bus being our agency. “Wrong people” seems to be me!

I used to be highly respected for my knowledge and ability to problem-solve & craft policy & procedure to guide our work processes. My co-workers still have this respect, but they are not management. Now I am being shuffled off to a position doing quality control audits of lower-classed workers – because I “know everything”.

They’ve hired a new “Operations Analyst” to represent our work section who has no technical knowledge of our complex programs, but lots of management experience. I applied for this job, but was not hired – was told our agency wants to hire people for management who have the “people skills” (translate: prior management) because these skills are inborn, whereas technical skills can be “taught”. This person is now taking classes & spending most of her time trying to learn what I already know inside & out. I have been our team leader in every way but actual title for the past 8 years, and this situation is a bitter pill to swallow.

I can’t leave for a variety of reasons, mostly because I have my entire career centered around this work, and I can retire in 4 years. And my pay hasn’t been cut – just my job duties and any shred of respect for me as a learned professional. How do other older workers handle these kinds of professional disappointments and not go insane? Thanks for any suggestions on inspirational books or comfort of that nature. I just want to be able to survive these next few years with my dignity intact.

Thank you.

Shuffled off to a lesser job

franke james

Dear Shuffled off to a lesser job,

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics. You probably thought your letter dropped into a black hole, however I have been musing about it since you sent it. What would I do? How would I handle this situation? Before I step in with a possible solution for you to consider, let’s step back and acknowledge two things.

1. A new broom sweeps clean
As you have noted, you’re not on the “A” team any longer. The old phrase “a new broom sweeps clean” may be somewhat of a mental salve. Remember that the shift in your job functions is not your fault. Don’t take it personally. But recognize that you have little control over the shift in power (for now).

2. You’re not quitting now
You’re going to retire in four years and you’ve already made the big decision that you are staying, no matter what.

Creating an Action Plan
So how can you make those fours years worthwhile and actually pave the way to a great post-retirement career? To do that, I think you need to shift your attitude. You have a great opportunity in front of you. Probably at this point in reading my response, you’re shaking your head and saying, “Great opportunity? What is Franke James talking about?”

Let’s recap… You’ve said your new role is this:
Now I am being shuffled off to a position doing quality control audits of lower-classed workers – because I ‘know everything’.

A Simple but Profound Idea
The idea to turn things around for you is quite simple but profound. And it’s based on true leadership. You need to look for the opportunities in your new role to promote others so that they rise above you. To some people that idea will sound crazy. The counter-intuitive logic operating in this idea is explained beautifully in a book by Steve Farber called “Greater Than Yourself.”

Farber says, “Your own greatness as a leader lies, paradoxically, in your ability to cause others to be greater than yourself. Said another way, your (and my) best way out of a leadership challenge or crisis is not to focus on your own peril or rut, but, instead, to reach out and try to boost someone else over your head. The idea should sound familiar. It’s really just a variation on the “do unto others” sentiment of the Golden Rule, a philosophy that exists in virtually all religions, schools of thought, and philosophies on the planet. And in none of those versions — not one — will you find a footnote saying, “Does not apply Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 to 5 or in any situation where a paycheck is involved.”

Instead of wallowing in your own despair, pick someone at work to invest in, with the intent of making that person greater than you are. Be a coach, guide, or mentor in the truest, most personal sense of the words by choosing someone to be your GTY (Greater Than Yourself) project, and see what that does to your own predicament, your own state of mind.”

The core of this idea is as Farber says, “to reach out and try to boost someone else over your head.”

Many other authors, including Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People), Dr. David Schwartz (The Magic of Thinking Big), Bob Burg and John David Mann (The Go-Giver) have promoted variations on this idea. Schwartz says that we are “lifted to success by others.” That simple phrase has stuck in my mind for decades.

By helping others to achieve their career and life goals (with no immediate reward in sight) we are rewarded many times over. It may not be a direct reward from that person — it may be as a result of their positive word-of-mouth, or other people observing and quietly making a mental note that you are someone who acts as a connector and coach to help others grow. This can lead to opportunities that you cannot even imagine now — but when you look back you’ll be able to connect the dots and see that it was because you helped that person with no reward in mind.

What’s the thinking behind this? When someone helps us, selflessly, with no immediate gain, it is human nature for (most of) us to want to give something back to them in return. That return gift can take many forms. In a job situation, where they are being coached by you, they may not think they have the power to give anything of “value” back to you. But the desire to return the favor is inside them. They may try to repay you by speaking well of you — thereby influencing others. They may get promoted to other work and companies — and when they are, they may use that opportunity to lift you to success.

However it’s key to keep this in mind: Whether or not you are ever rewarded by anyone, you will be rewarded on another more important level. You will grow as a person and you will derive great satisfaction when you realize how much you have to offer, and how it can transform someone else’s life. Bob Burg and John David Mann explain this philosophy in The Go-Giver. Here are their five rules:

1. The Law of Value:
Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than take in payment.

2. The Law of Compensation:
Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.

3. The Law of Influence:
Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interest first.

4. The Law of Authenticity:
The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.

5. The Law of Receptivity:
The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.

It could be that you will have a wonderful and challenging post-retirement career as a director of a non-profit organization. Who knows what the future holds for you? I’d like to suggest that you work on developing a plan. Imagine how your skills could help others. There are so many worthwhile projects (and social problems waiting to be solved) that a talented and skilled person like you could be kept busy 24/7.

You also asked for reading suggestions. In addition to reading the books mentioned above, I’d like to recommend two others.

1. Office-Politics advisor Erika Andersen’s Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change
2. Paul Levesque and Art McNeil’s book Dreamcrafting: The Art of Dreaming Big, the Science of Making It Happen.

Both books can help you to craft a life plan to achieve your dreams — I’ve seen it happen. Good luck! Please let me know if this advice is helpful to you. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of Dear Office-Politics: the game everyone plays a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 4 Answers to “Demotion is a bitter pill to swallow”

  2. Dear Office Politics (Franke),

    Wow – I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this reply… Perhaps getting this off my chest last month freed me emotionally to think clearly and come up with some of the same thoughts you’ve just run by me. After I hit “send” I definitely felt different.

    Since emailing O.P., I submitted my application for a selective leadership program at our agency. Attached is what I submitted, and I received word of acceptance yesterday for the program. In my application I mentioned my new job and my desire to turn a negative into a positive. Also, a couple of weeks ago, I found reference on a website to the book “Greater than Yourself”, and after reading excerpts ordered it through Amazon. I have always tried to recognize other staff for good work & effort etc., but I can see that mentoring is the next step, if one were to describe the path.

    Now is that eerie or what? You have validated me! I’m actually surviving & starting to do the right things, rather than brood and fester.

    So, obviously, I am enormously grateful for your thoughts and additional references – I’ll read the other recommended books. I just did my first quality control audit yesterday & was working on trying to put a positive spin on a dreary outcome, but now I feel I don’t have to “try”, I just will.

    I have the five rules of the Go-Giver printed & tacked up next to my monitor – as a daily reminder.

    Thanks for your help, truly.

    A New Leader

    By Letter-writer: Shuffled off to a lesser job on Sep 10, 2009

  3. Very well said, Franke. Thanks for spreading the word. GTY, Go-Giver, et al all come from the same point of view: human beings should do good for other human beings. Simple as that.

    And congrats to you, New Leader! Please keep us all posted on your new venture.

    By Steve Farber on Sep 10, 2009

  4. I am in a similar position. It is so hard “not” to take it personally, when you dedicated yourself to the job at the expense of your family life. Plus it is hard face your peers on a daily basis. You become the shunned demoted one. I will however, try to follow your advise.
    Thank you.

    By Jane on Sep 11, 2009

  5. This article impressed me for a number of reasons; the candor of the original request, the wide-ranging, thoughtful advice given and the feedback response. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all help others be better than we are? Sounds like leadership.

    By Chris Tracey on Jan 15, 2010

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