Coping With a Demotion and Other Bad News

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Maybe your boss promoted a colleague instead of you. Or maybe your company reshuffled your department, and you now find yourself on a lower tier of the org chart.

Demotions and reshufflings put you in a dangerous place, because it’s easy for your discouragement to surface as antagonism toward your manager and company, not to mention slipshod work. Such reactions may not be professional, and they’re certainly not smart—but they’re human nonetheless.

You may think such disappointments will never happen to you, but the corporate world is unpredictable. One professional, who asked not to be named, told of years spent researching and developing plans for a new line of business; though he assumed everyone would recognize his ownership of the project, management replaced him at the last minute with a newly hired manager.

While the disappointed pro’s managers lauded the professionalism with which he handled the transition, they also noted the lack of passion he brought to his new role. He left the department soon after, and his career at the company never really recovered.

No matter how well your career is proceeding, no matter how highly regarded you are among your colleagues, it pays to think about how you’ll handle bad news. You’ll need to keep check of your emotions, learn about what factored into the company’s decision, and think about whether your future lies at your current employer or a new one.

You Can’t Duck Reality

Bad news arrives, and you’re furious. What can you do? “First, allow yourself to feel what you feel,” said Colin T. McLetchie, president of Five Ways Forward, a coaching and consulting company that works with a wide range of professionals and teams from its base in Arlington, Va. “It’s OK to be disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and angry.”

It’s also important to process what you’re feeling, either by talking things out with someone you trust, taking a few days off to decompress or writing a letter (which you should never, ever send) to whomever made the organization’s decision. “If you attempt to simply push past it, these emotions are likely to come up again later in bigger, uglier ways,” McLetchie warned.

Try not to take the decision personally: Organizations take actions for many reasons, and not everyone is going to come out on top. Keep that in mind when planning your answers for when someone asks you about your reaction to the new developments.

Whatever the specifics of your answers, make sure to keep things positive. McLetchie suggests saying something along the lines of, “We had an organizational realignment that resulted in a shift in title structures. While I was disappointed to have my title adjusted, I recognize that it brings me in alignment with my peer group in the organization.”

You should also mention the ways in which you’re moving forward. “It of course needs to be true, and the truth can be told in many different ways,” McLetchie noted. “So find forward-moving, upbeat language.”

At the same time, make a list of the things you’ll actively do to contribute to the new organization. These can range from “I will listen and be open to new ideas” to “I’ll tackle each new assignment with upbeat energy while not losing track of the best practices we used before.” Such an exercise helps you step back and think about the value you bring to the new organization, and your potential within it. If you plan to stick with your company, ultimately you want to be seen as helping make the change successful.

Learn About What Happened

While you’re contributing to the transition, seek to learn as much about the decision as you can; this is an opportunity to take a dispassionate look at how the organization perceives you.

“Ask yourself, ‘What message is the organization trying to send me?’” McLetchie said. Come up with your own answer, while getting input from people who have real insight into the matter, such as those who were part of the decision-making process.

In those conversations, make sure to hit on some key points:

  • Acknowledge that colleagues and managers might perceive the reorganization as a serious setback for your career at the company.
  • Ask for help in understanding (from the organization’s perspective) where you fit in the new paradigm.
  • If the demotion is a message that you need to step up your game, you need to know that.
  • Ask how you can distinguish yourself going forward.

And remember…

It Might Be Personal

Sometimes there’s simply no good spin to put on events: A manager’s personal feelings might have resulted in the decision to change your role. If the move surprised you, consider it a wake-up call.

“There are two dimensions to success: What you get done, and how you get it done,” McLetchie said. “Personal issues are about that second dimension.” Since a decision-maker who doesn’t like you isn’t going to promote you, at some point you simply have to address the issues between you, whether by having a conversation, stepping up your game or looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Whether there are personal issues in play or not, a demotion or reshuffling is a good time to check out the marketplace for your skills. “Sometimes interviewing for other jobs can help us feel better about ourselves, help us feel like we have options, give us a sense of our real value ‘out there,’” McLetchie noted. You may decide it’s worth weathering the situation at your current employer, or you may discover that you’ve been undervalued—in which case, it might be time to seek new opportunities.

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