Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2012, 6:20 pm

Demotions and other well-meaning bad ideas

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By Joan Lloyd

Other than a few heartless souls, most of us would rather avoid making career-ending decisions for people we supervise. So, we agonize over what to do: Should we fire the person? Should we move him? Should we try to change her?

Marv is a 50-something engineer, who has been with a company for 15 years. His latest position was engineering manager of a team of 20 applications engineers. His boss has been giving him subtle hints that he needs to be more focused on management skills and less on managing the projects themselves.

Last week he was told he was going to get a new boss, who was going to have Marv's former title, and Marv was going to be the "lead engineer."

Marv was shocked. Not only was he to lose his former title, he was going to have no direct reports. Reeling from the news, he went home and called his former mentor, who had left the company two years before.

"How could they do this?" Marv asked. "What did I do wrong?" "Should I take it or just tell them what to do with it?"

Marv's former mentor suggested the new position might be better suited to Marv's talents. Marv likes the day-to-day detail and admits managing was never his thing. But how was he going to save face with all his employees and colleagues? And even though his boss was talking about leaving his salary alone, he knew it would be capped over time if he took a job with no management responsibility.

This is an example of a company trying to do the "right thing." If Marv is one of those rare individuals who realize his skills are better leveraged in the new job and can overcome his bruised ego, he actually may be happy about it over time.

But for most people, a demotion like this is too much to recover from. Either they subtly sabotage the new boss or end up leaving.

Linda is the owner's daughter. She joined the family business right out of college and started out in sales because her dad felt that would give her the best overall perspective of the company.

Linda liked sales but her real interest was IT. Linda didn't have her dad's entrepreneurial talent; she preferred digging into the technical aspects of the business. An introvert, she didn't have her dad's charismatic flare for dealing with customers and employees and didn't much care for the financial aspect of the business either.

Nevertheless, Linda found herself running the business when her parents decided they wanted to retire. Leadership was a chore. She fought her distaste and tried to live up to her parents' expectations because their lives and savings were invested in the business and their financial security was dependent on her.

This is a form of self-imposed genetic slavery. Rather than being free to find her own way in the world, parental expectations overshadowed her own desires. She could have broken free and gone her own way in the world but chose to stay.

The business will falter. The staff will be dismayed. Linda will be miserable. And her parents' secure retirement is in doubt.

Janet loved her job as events coordinator. Unfortunately, her boss wanted her to "realize her potential." Her boss was well-meaning, but her heart was torn; sure, she wanted more money, but she really liked her balanced life. She could stay under the radar of the politics and trappings of a bigger job and enjoy her family and free time.

Her boss was so persistent, she relented and decided to take the promotion he offered her. She knew within weeks it was a mistake. Burdened with the petty dramas of managing the staff and dulled by the bureaucracy of meetings, she missed the fun and creativity of managing events. Less than two years into the job, she left for a new job.

Moving up isn't for everyone. Janet's boss wouldn't have lost a great employee if he had listened more carefully to her protestations. Being well-placed and happy is a good thing — not always a stepping-stone to something bigger.

Well-meaning leaders sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach, organizational and leadership development strategist. Email questions to Joan at and visit to search an archive of more than 1400 of Joan's articles.