advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

I was fired from a job I love

Recently, I was fired from the job I loved. Not only did I enjoy what I was doing, I was pretty good at it too, if I do I say so myself. Then, about 18 months ago, I was assigned a new manager. Young (late thirties) and considered a rising star, his focus was goal-setting, metrics, and deliverables – all of which was perfectly fine with me (in fact, I pride myself on my commitment to these things). He also turned out to be a big fan of continuous improvement and professional growth. This would become the source of our differences.

       Like I said, I was happy in my role, and had little interest in taking on any new responsibilities that might move me away from it, or possibly burn me out. He became increasingly insistent that I “push myself,” however, and be more ambitious. So finally I had to put my foot down. My thinking was I’d been with the organization for years and always received stellar performance evaluations, so why should I give up everything I’d worked so hard for just to keep the manager-of-the-month happy? Well, shortly thereafter I was forced out (technically, my contract wasn’t renewed). I’ve since learned my replacement is far less experienced, and struggling (and probably paid less too). I’m really upset about all of this! I feel like I still had so much to offer, but was cast aside just to save a few $$$! What happened?? – Name withheld 

The organizations we work for are, in some respects, a lot like a pyramid scheme.

Are you familiar with the classic ruse? You buy in by sending $50 or whatever to the name at the top of a list. Then you add your name and address to the bottom, cross the top name off, and recruit 5 more people to do the same. And then you wait. For a five-level pyramid (including you), by the time your name reaches the top and the envelopes of cash start rolling in, you stand to make $31,250! Not bad for a $50 investment, right?

The problem is the math. The number of people needed to sustain such a scheme quickly becomes impossibly large. Even if you were to join in the first round, when there’s still only one person at the top, ultimately 390,625 people would have to buy in before you see any $$$ yourself. Most people who join never see a dime.[1],[2]

Here’s the other thing: In order for there to be any pay-off at all—even for the scammers at the top—everybody needs to play by the rules. If you say you’re in, but don’t send anyone any money, or recruit anybody else, that costs everyone else. In organizational terms, you are “in the way.” It would therefore be better if you weren’t part of the pyramid at all.

This is where your situation comes in.

In a hierarchically-structured organization (as I assume your former employer’s is) there’s something to be gained in keeping everyone interested in moving up the ladder. It’s an effective way to “motivate” people without actually paying them more – and businesses often choose to capitalize on this. So management dangles the promise of more organizational prestige, increased decision-making power, greater responsibility, better compensation, or just being able to finally pursue that pet project of yours as a way of encouraging you to set your sights on the next rung.

But again, the problem is the numbers.

Hierarchies are pyramid-shaped because managers don’t usually manage just one other person. By definition then, there isn’t enough room for everybody in the organization to advance indefinitely. As Matthew Stewart explains in The Management Myth (2009):

“To succeed, [employees] must continue moving up the pyramid. As the funnel narrows, the math inexorably requires those who fail to move up to be tossed out the side. In the end, just about everybody who plays the game is a loser” (p. 143).

Stewart even has a name for those who are forced out: “the broken arm club” – a cheeky reference to one possible result of tumbling down an actual pyramid.

And this is what appears to have happened to you.

Even though you were happy (and effective) doing what you’d always been doing, you nevertheless clogged up a spot in the scheme. And that’s a problem for those below you – or, in your case, any new “participant” hoping to buy in. So once your new manager realized you weren’t willing to play along, he got rid of you.

Does all this come at an organizational cost? Absolutely. As you correctly recognize, valuable organizational expertise is unnecessarily squandered as individuals such a yourself are pushed out. Management doesn’t necessarily see things this way, though. Employees can come to be viewed as “cogs” by their managers – that is, interchangeable parts to be swapped out as soon as a cheaper version becomes available. For them, getting rid of you saved the company a few bucks.

So my sincerest sympathies for having been put through this upsetting experience. I wish I could offer you more in the way of helpful advice. Sadly, I can’t. My only hope is that your next employer realizes what your former manager apparently does not:

Employees who are good at what they do—and yet aren’t interested in chasing the next carrot—are well worth hanging on to.



[1] For a “4-person” pyramid scheme: Level 1 – 1 person; Level 2 – 5 people; Level 3 – 25 people; Level 4 – 125 people; Level 5 (YOU) – 625 people; 6 – 3,125 people; 7 – 15,625 people; 8 – 78,125 people; 9 – 390,625 people (the number of participants needed for you to see any $$), 10 – 1,953,125 people; 11 – 9,765,625 people; 12 – 48,828,125 people; 13 – 244,140,625 people (approx. 2/3 the population of the US); 14 – 1,220,703,125 people; 15 – 6,103,515,625 people (nearly the total population of the entire planet).

[2] Pyramid schemes like the one described here are considered a form of business fraud by the FBI, and are illegal.

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