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Why Top Performers Get Fired

The Big Irony:  Why Top Performers Get Fired or Outplaced

first published in Management Magazine- Australia                                                                                                 

Who gets outplaced and why?  Incredibly, the answer is often top performers and quiet achievers.  In the corporate world, anything that distances you from your peers can negate you.  The Big Irony is that you really can be too conspicuously successful or too quietly competent for your own good.  That’s why, believe it or not, companies do sometimes fire their top performers.

It’s harsh but simple logic: during tough times, conservative companies act conservatively, ie, they conserve, preserve and protect their core corporate values.  Thus companies will favour the familiar and predictable over the unconventional and nonconforming.  Employees who for are conspicuous for any reason are scrutinised first, even if they are more efficient, productive and profitable than their peers.  It’s precisely because they stand out, over, or above their peers (and may cost the company more in salary accordingly) that they are examined first.

Since most companies are inherently conservative, their actions are predictable.  If the economy contracts and business takes a downturn, companies shed staff.  But based on what?  Group psychology largely.

Any group (i.e., company, profession, industry, etc.) seeks first to survive when in crisis.  Therefore it acts first and foremost to perpetuate itself.

For example, in the 1950s a charitable organisation named the March of Dimes was founded in the US to combat polio.  Did the organisation disband when polio was cured?  No.  It simply found a new disease by which it could justify its existence.  Does any government department or programme disband when it has accomplished its objective?  No, it simply finds a way to justify its further funding.  Business is the same.

In period of economic uncertainty, companies act even more conservatively than usual.  They conserve not only their core business but their core values.  So it is not surprising — it’s actually predictable– that businesses react to volatility by creating a more homogeneous company.  In times of economic uncertainty, homogeneity = harmony.  (Well, not really, but that’s how they think.)

Top performers often bend rules and step outside established procedures in order to achieve good results, so they get noticed precisely because they depart from the preferred practices.  Top performers are usually paid more than their mediocre counterparts too.  So when companies reduce “headcount”, cut costs, and slash overheads, top performers become top targets.

The point to remember is that cutting back to core business means cutting back to core employees.  Core employees are the ones who blend in most readily with the prevailing mood of the company.

The Big Irony also affects the quiet achievers.  My study of the psychological profiles of retrenched employees reveals an interesting pattern:  the employees seldom lack skill, energy or ability but they fail to broadcast internally their competence and achievements.  So when the axe falls it’s on the introvert rather than the extrovert, on the demure rather than the socially spontaneous person, on those who are task oriented rather than people oriented.

Many times I’ve sat around a board room table watching executives decide who will be fired and outplaced.  All too often it’s the person who is simply unknown to the management, who blithely trusts that doing good work is enough, and who is oblivious to the political dimensions of his/her company.  The lesson is: if your political skills don’t match your technical skills, you are in danger.

The largest reason for corporate restructuring and retrenchments is not poor performance by employees but a need for greater corporate efficiency.

This means that as companies continue to reconfigure themselves, today’s “high flying” performer might become “yesterday’s news” by tomorrow.

Here’s how to avoid being fired, retrenched or outplaced.

First, fit in.  Wave the company flag, sing the company song and achieve through established channels.  Even US Presidents become unemployed if they can’t fit in and get along with Congress.  It the elected leader of the world’s only superpower has to fit in with others in order to be keep his job, you will too.

Second, become skilled in the art of self-promotion.  You don’t have to change your personality, be arrogant, or be super-competent.  You just need to regularly inform others of your successes.  Does IBM make the best computers in the world?  Hardly, but IBM markets its competencies well.

Does McDonald’s make the best hamburgers?

Does Coca-Cola make the best beverage?

Do you get the point?

Third, pay attention to politics.  You don’t have to be a Prime Minister or President to know that every job has a political dimension that is as important as the job’s actual tasks.   Politics are all around you, all the time and are easily seen in your company’s corporate culture.  So pay attention.  Remember, if you rub against the grain of a corporate culture, it’s you that will wear the splinters.


About Dr. Duff Watkins [www.execsearch.com.au]

international executive search consultant / author-- dispensing career advice about how the job market really works


2 thoughts on “Why Top Performers Get Fired

  1. Okay — you are playing too nice with the management aspect — it is not the corporation’s concern for bottom line that achievers get fired — that doesn’t even make sense.

    The reason is simple, when times get tough, the politics go into high gear. Anyone who will look like a keeper to upper management is targeted by frightened untalented, tow-the-line middle managers.

    They get the quiet achievers by cooking up some kind of performance issue. This works because the manager has been careful to play down the achiever’s value all along.

    The real problem is that upper management trusts their supervisors too much. They need to interact with the professionals and see for themselves who the performers are and protect them.

    The best way to ensure you keep talented and innovative professionals is to reward them with autonomy. High performers, especially technical professionals do not regard promotion to management as a reward. As for financial rewards, creative people value freedom more than money.

    Unfortunately, this is all companies have to offer. The better plan is to cut the talented loose from the hierarchical management structure and free them up to do what they do best. Have them report directly to a higher level of management–those guys are too big to be intimidated by the talented.

    I have seen and experienced too many companies that value conformity over performance and live to regret it when they lose future contracts and business.

    Know who’s buttering your bread.


    Posted by Will | November 1, 2012, 3:31 pm
    • I couldn’t agree more, Will. If you are a person of integrity who is one of those top performers, you’re still at the mercy of managers with less integrity who are desperate to keep their jobs and are in more of a position to bend the ear of administration. I remember back in the early 1990s there was a business-wide wave of getting rid of that type of management, but sometimes I think that has crept back up.


      Posted by W | January 5, 2014, 8:35 am

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