The number 1 mistake leaders make

Dear Joan:
I was recently demoted at my current company with no substantial reason except reorganization. I always got A+ reviews and good raises. I was never told to work on any weaknesses or develop areas I needed work in. In other words, I thought I was doing a good job. If I wasn't, the company never told me and, thus, never gave me the opportunity to improve.

Now I feel just terrible-humiliated, a failure, hurt at not getting a raise that I really depend on, etc. What do you think is going on? Is this company trying to get rid of me? What do you think of this tactic? Do I have any legal recourse here? I worked very hard-was conscientious-put off extended vacations and dragged myself to work when sick. What happened? 

Now someone else is being hired for my previous position. Is this the "politics" that goes on in companies now? Is it who you kiss up to or how hard you work that gets you places nowadays? 

I hope your letter is read by every manager who would rather remain silent than tell employees what they need to improve on. I can't tell you how many times I've heard derailed employees say, "If I had only known what to improve, I would have gladly worked on it but I thought everything was ok."

The workplace would be a more effective -and happy- place if managers would remember the golden rule of bad news: "If I had that problem, would I want MY boss to tell ME?" If the employee's behaviors are hurting his or her career, it's the manager's responsibility to provide feedback and coaching. 

If you do a post-mortem on this situation you may learn some things that could help you in the future. Bear in mind, however, that you may never know the whole truth. 

First, let's consider the fact that someone was hired for your previous position. Your boss is probably not being open with you. For example, if your position had been eliminated in a reorganization, it would be easier to see how this demotion could occur, given your high ratings in the past. 

If your replacement has exactly the same job you held, the "reorganization" was your boss's way of dealing with a performance issue he or she was unwilling to confront. Even if the job has been expanded, you need to ask yourself, "Why didn't my boss tell me about the required changes and help me develop the necessary skills?" "If the job has gotten bigger, were the qualifications beyond my abilities?" 

Consider the bigger picture. Does your manager have a new boss? Could this decision have been made by someone other than your supervisor? Perhaps your manager was happy with your work but someone else above him or her wasn't satisfied. 

As you examine the last few years of your performance, think about how easy it is to confuse "hard work" with "smart work." By that I mean dragging yourself in to work when you're sick and putting off vacations is laudable but you'll notice there is no category called "DEDICATED" on your performance appraisal. These things deserve a pat on the back but don't necessarily qualify you for more money by themselves-it's how effective you are that keeps you in the winner's circle. Does your definition of "effectiveness" and your boss's definition match? 

Another question for you to investigate is, "How valid was my A+ rating all these years?" Although it will be difficult for you, I'd suggest that you ask your boss for some feedback. However, since you haven't heard about any weaknesses before, your manager may have a problem telling you now. 

Before asking your boss to give you constructive feedback, you'll need to manage the anger and bitterness you surely must feel. You don't want this meeting to be explosive. Your manager may have avoided honesty in the past because he or she was afraid of hurting your feelings or making you angry. In order to get the truth, you will need to manage your emotions. It may help to say, "I'm confused by the mixed signals I'm getting. I need to know what areas I need to improve on if there is some problem with my performance." Listen carefully to the answer and don't argue with it. Instead, ask for more specifics and examples until you feel satisfied that you understand what your manager is telling you. 

Your company is probably not trying to get rid of you. If they were, they would have used this "reorganization" to eliminate your job and fire you. Perhaps they value your many technical skills but feel you were over-extended in your former job. Without feedback from your boss, it's impossible to know exactly what the real reasons were. 

Once you have more information, you have some decisions to make. For instance: Is your new job a good fit for you and worth keeping? Are you too embarrassed to stay under any circumstances? If you get some negative feedback, can you work on it in your new job? Does this demotion mean that you are dead-ended in your present company? If I pursue legal action what will that buy me? 

Whether you decide to leave or stay, be more assertive about soliciting performance feedback in the future. Ask your boss for advice and coaching on your work long before the performance appraisal, so that weaknesses are addressed before they can become problems. Stay in tune with shifting organizational priorities so that you can anticipate changes. Most important, make sure you have a clear understanding of your boss's priorities and expectations. You were blind-sided on this one. I'm sure you will never let this happen to you again. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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