By Andrew Forrester
A demotion in the workplace may have you questioning your skills and worth. Here are some next steps you can take to navigate through this difficult point in your career.
“Disappointment is really just a term for our refusal to look on the bright side.”
Richelle E. Goodrich, American author
Few things feel worse than losing a job . . . but getting demoted is pretty close. Of all possible developments at work, a demotion might be the most difficult to manage well. When you’re let go or even fired, you at least have the advantage of licking your wounds and planning your next steps in private. A demotion, by contrast, means an often-public step back from a leadership role, coupled with the expectation that you continue working hard and perhaps even performing better than you were before.
This is difficult stuff. Not only might you struggle with feelings of embarrassment or disappointment, you may also face countless questions: What happened? Was I not good enough? Is my job still in danger? While we don’t have the answer to each of these questions, we do have a few tips when it comes to weathering this storm and coming out stronger.
Learn the Reasons Why
You probably didn’t arrive at this place in your career path without a conversation—or perhaps many conversations. Maybe your superior has become a bit of a broken record on necessary changes or improvements, and they finally made good on their promised reactions. Or more rarely, this demotion might seem like it’s come out of nowhere.
In both cases, feedback is going to be really valuable, even if it might also be somewhat painful to endure. In the former case, your supervisor has most likely detailed the reasons for your new title and role. In the latter, you may have to solicit some pointers as to what went wrong. Regardless, now is not the time to defend your actions or explain your mistakes. That ship has sailed. Now is the time to wrestle with what’s been said about you in a meaningful way. Even if you feel like your boss has gotten it wrong, there is still the matter of perception. The perception of you and your work has led to this particular reality, and that requires your reckoning with it.
It’s also possible that other outside forces have led to this change: maybe your company was bought out, or a tightened budget has led to a reduced number of leadership roles. In these cases, too, understanding the reasons why you’ve landed here can ease the burden of this transition, even if it can’t make things the way they used to be.
Address the Elephant in the Room
Whether the issues leading to this new position are yours to own or completely out of your hands, it is vital that you acknowledge this change in both public and private ways. In casual conversation, it’s on you to broach the subject. In relationships with clients or teams, it behooves you to be the one building necessary bridges. A simple email saying “So-and-So will be taking over your account” or “Please direct future inquiries to So-and-So” demonstrates your commitment to the group as a whole while also being an early indication of your gracious handling of a tricky situation.
Now is also the time for some introspection. It may be tempting to just put your head down and work, but the elephant needs to be addressed internally as well. Things have changed. Why? What does that mean for you, right now, as well as along the broader arc of your professional trajectory? What needs doing or understanding or correcting? Are there any apologies that are expected of you? After the immediate haze of confusion has cleared, these questions will still be there, and they’ll still be worth answering either on your own or with the help of those ready to offer feedback. Approach these questions head-on, knowing that tackling them now is far better than allowing them to fester in the long term.
Work! (And Try to Enjoy It)
Of course, in the midst of all that processing, you do actually have to get back to work. In your former role, there were presumably lots of eyes watching you. Those same eyes are on you still, but for different reasons. There’s no getting around it: you’ve got to work hard, work well and be on your best behavior. As you now know from personal experience, no job situation is permanent, and sometimes hard decisions have to be made. What you can do right now is make keeping you on the team an easy choice – one that your superiors will want to make again and again.
And here’s some good news: it is very likely that your responsibilities have decreased, as has the severity of the consequences when you get something wrong. Yes, this can certainly feel deflating, but as long as it’s your reality, there’s no sense in railing against what can’t be fixed right away. Change may come eventually, and it’s entirely possible that you could regain a leadership position in the future. In the meantime, treat your new job description like a reprieve: a small respite from high stakes decision-making and overseeing others. Right now, you get to focus on the work with the pressure gauge turned way down. Why not make the most of it?
Take Care of Yourself
You are not alone in your experience. According to this study, around half of all HR managers say their company has demoted at least one person. The numbers are further revealing: “52 percent of employees who were demoted quit” while “47 percent became disengaged.” Quitting is your prerogative (more on that later), but disengaging shouldn’t be a realistic option. Instead, do what you have to do to look after yourself.
Work looks a little different now, so maybe your personal life should change, too. What do you love to do that your previous role made difficult? Is it possible to reevaluate your relationship with fitness, your friends, the things you read, the way you eat, the trips you take? What new experiences or new passions do you have time for now that your professional circumstances have changed? Pursuing these things can provide meaningful balance outside of work and ensure a full, enriching existence of which your new position is only one part.
After giving your new situation a fair shake, evaluate what comes next. Perhaps it’s possible to work your way back up that ladder; perhaps you’ve found contentment where you are right now. And of course, it’s possible that a new job with a new company is the best option. If that’s the case, take time to consider how you’ll address your work history in the job application process. In any case, you can go forward with the assurance that you learned difficult but valuable lessons, and you’re all the better for it.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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