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Demoting Yourself—It Can Be a Good Thing

This is personal story and one I wanted to share about how knowing yourself and your place within an organization is the best thing you can do for your career, your organization, and your life.

Around the middle of last year, I was promoted to a supervisory position within my office—I became the leader of a new team, had my own budget, joined the “leadership” ranks within the office—it was due, in part, to recognition of my work over the past 7 years at the U.S. Geological Survey. It wasn’t a “grade” increase, it was a change in responsibilities. I was thrilled, to say the least, and honored to be recognized for my hard work and to be seen as part of the future of this organization’s leadership.

Having started out as a contractor in 2004 doing web application development, becoming a Fed a little over a year later, and taking lead in bigger efforts like social media coordination for the USGS in the past couple years…this was the next logical step. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy…going from a “worker bee” to a supervisor. That’s a big change to undertake and one that was ready to take on full-force. I’ve never backed down from something that challenged me professionally and there was no reason why this would be any different.

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I soon learned it was much harder than what I had ever expected.

Fast-forward to January. For many months prior, I had been feeling very overwhelmed, stressed, worn down, and just not happy. Yes, I did my job and was doing everything I had to do to be a good supervisor, manage projects, help my employees the best I could, etc. But it was draining on me, personally. I came to realize that being the worker-bee for so many years and being in a position with creative freedom was much more my style of work vs. managing people and all the general things that any supervisor would eventually have to deal with (rules, administrative work, team concerns, personality conflicts, etc).

Then last month, I took the next step in my career…I asked to demote myself. Well, I didn’t use that term (that’s just for dramatic effect), but I did request to step down from being a supervisor and get back to what made me happy to come to work everyday…being a worker-bee. After a few serious conversations with my managers, they full-on supported my decision and understood where I was coming from and agreed to do whatever was necessary to make things work better.

Wow! If anyone ever tells you the Government doesn’t care about its employees or people…bull. I don’t know about elsewhere, but at the USGS it’s very clear that many of our managers genuinely care about they’re employees’ well-being.

I’m still wrapping up some of the loose ends from switching out of the supervisory role, but I can tell you that I’m much happier now and more comfortable with what I’m doing.

What are the lessons learned from this?

  • Know yourself (you work ethic, your work style, what makes you tick)
  • You’ve got to be happy with what you’re doing…if you’re not happy with what you do, it will be drain on both you and everyone else around you…or those that you manage. That’s worse then trying to stick it out.
  • Be honest with your managers. That might be hard for some to do, but the job of a manager is to help their people excel. If your manager is truly a good manager, they’ll find a way to do that.
  • Admit when you’re wrong. I’ve never backed down from a professional challenge. I did this time around. Admitting that wasn’t easy to do, but it was necessary.
  • Admitting you were wrong is =! fail (for you non-coders, =! means “not equal to”).

I may not be supervising as Leader (big “L”) anymore, but I’m in a much better position to further excel at what I’m good at doing and STILL be a “leader.” In the end that’s good for me, my career, my life, and my organization.

Note: This article is my own opinion and is not endorsed by any organization.

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

Thanks Gordon, Dave.

@Andrew: When I announced my decision to my team they were a little shocked, but I think they respected my decision and weren’t too worried since I was still going to be here doing what I’ve always been doing.

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Susan Thomas

@Scott, I commend you. Supervision is a calling. It can drain you sometimes in more ways than you can imagine. You are obviously very mature and grounded to have this insight early in your career. My advice is to follow your intuition always.

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Profile Photo Ethan McMahon

Bravo Scott. If you want to make a difference, it’s important that you follow your heart and pursue happiness. Your positive attitude and energy will inspire others – and you’ll still be happy!

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

@Susan, thanks for that great compliment! I definitely like to think of myself as grounded in what I do, so I’m glad to see someone else say that of me.

@Ethan, agreed. You have to be happy with what you do. I know that sounds like a cliche, but it’s definitely true. What really makes this easier is having managers that are there to support your decisions. If you have that as well then you’re in a good place.

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Profile Photo Megan Libby

Scott, this is an awesome post and I applaud you for your honesty and openness! I love that your chain of command did not embrace the traditional “up or out” approach to career development. We’re working on that culture shift too, and it’s a big one…but it’s important to know the positions in which every employee can do their best work: afterall, mission first!

Bravo!

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

@Megan, Thanks! Absolutely..mission first. Putting people into positions where they can use their talents, or are passionate about is always better for the organization in long run.

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Profile Photo Gina Costante

Wow, Scott– what a fantastic, feel-good story. Shows how important self-awareness is and kudos to you for having it. I’m envious of your responsive leadership at USGS.

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Profile Photo Sam Allgood

Scott, I did the same thing about 15 years ago. I wasn’t dealing with stress, but knew that my skills and enjoyment were in programming, not in supervising. It helped that it was a small commercial company and I had a friend who was looking for a job and was a good fit to replace me. Interestingly enough, another close friend, who had been my supervisor prior to this change, later swapped positions with this new hire so that he also could get back closer to his technical roots. A win-win for all.

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Profile Photo Joe Flood

Brave. It’s great that you know and recognize your own strengths. You saved yourself years of unhappiness to work at what you do best.

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Profile Photo Lavon Hopkins

Scott:

Very brave move…Self Awareness is key to being an effective “Leader”…And though you’re not supervising anymore, you’re doing what you enjoy and I’m sure that your quality of life has improved and you’re a better employee as well. “Attitude Reflects Leadership”

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Profile Photo Margaret Schneider Ross

I think it’s strange that Scott thinks he’s backed down from a challenge. I bet recognizing where he was at and how he could best contribute was a pretty challenging move. And frankly, I feel like there are lots of managers who would be much happier “getting their hands dirty” than doing what they’re doing as managers – and the fact that they don’t admit it, or are not brave enough to make a change, can be a drag not just for them, but for all the people they manage!

Who says that moving up is the only direction? I love moving laterally, finding new and different problems to solve, working with new people. AND I took a GS 9 job ten years after I left the Agency as a GS 11-2 (in the same job series!), worked in the private sector, got an MBA, etc. It was the perfect job, and so long as I can support my family and enjoy both my family and my job – who cares where I am in the totem pole!

3 cheers for Scott!

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

Wow! I’m humbled by all the feedback and comments. I only tell this story because I want others to see that they don’t always have to accept what they’re doing as the only thing that they can do. Making a decision like this isn’t always going to be that easy, but sometimes you just need to do it.

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Profile Photo Dick Davies

Actually, that’s a smart career move, too. Upgrades in how we use IT have cut the demand for administration, while increasing the demand for individual contributors. Positive byproduct of being honest with your self.

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

“I’ve never backed down from a professional challenge. I did this time around.”

I disagree. You showed initiative and professionalism by realizing that wasn’t what you wanted nor was it what was best for the organization.

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Profile Photo Marie Carey

Kudos Scott, for making a very courageous decision! Several years back, I too, was promoted to a supervisory position for a three-year period before our office did a re-org,and it was the worst three years of my life! I worked 12 hour days just to keep up with the 4 hats I was wearing (Supervisor, Project Manager, UNIX Sys Admin, Security Team Lead) and I definitely burned-out during that period of time, not only due to the hours I was putting in, but due to the stress. I was never happier than the day the re-org took effect and I could stop being a manager, and go back to being a “worker bee”. I’m still dealing with some physical issues due to the burn-out, but at least life is back to a more balanced state for me now. IMHO, you made the right decision!

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Profile Photo Catherine Doyle

I agree with the other commenters who categorize this as taking on a challenge. I daresay we would have much better employee engagement if there were more people who were brave enough to be this honest with themselves and see their way to making moves that work for them, not just ‘up’ and not just what others want/expect.

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Profile Photo Susan

It takes a person of strong character, ethics and integrity to make this type of decision. The fact that you know what type of work inspires you to excel is admirable. The fact that you were sensitive to how this was affecting those you supervised was insightful. The fact that you were so well supported in this wise, but uncommon move by your managers is a testment to their integrity and training for their roles! Thanks so much for sharing this with us! The lessons learned are an invaluable model and best practice for others to know and follow. You are so right in that many times, being a leader and not a supervisor is much more rewarding and effective! Thanks again, great article!

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Profile Photo Terry Brill

Interesting story, and I agree with the other comments here. I’m curious if it affected your grade level. Did you get to keep a higher supervisory grade after you were demoted? This is often a difficult issue for an organization to deal with. At any rate, congratulations!

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

Terry, I was not given a grade increase when I took on supervisory duties. It was purely a change in duties…although my position description on record was changed. Those things will be changed and that’s part of what is still happening. But there was never an increase in pay.

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

Susan, Catherine, G-Loop, Marie, Corey, and Dick: Thanks again for the thoughtful responses. I remember in the supervisory and leadership classes I had taken, that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. It’s very, very true. You just need to be really good at what you do, share with others what you’ve done, and then go back and do it better. It doesn’t mean you have to do some grand communications rollout, or come up with some innovative solution…you just have to be good at what you’re doing and always work to improve it.

If you share what you’re doing with others then they’ll look to you for your thoughts and advice because they see that you’re doing good work. Doing just that can make you a leader. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to take it.

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Profile Photo Kitty Wooley

Kudos, Scott. This really sounds like a win/win, because it freed up your creative energy again so you can follow your bliss and the people you serve can benefit from your gifts. The powerful way in which you chose to resolve your difficulty exemplifies the “Manager of One” mindset that I think is a worthy alternative to the formal leadership track, in government as well as in the private sector:

“Managers of one are people who come up with their own goals and execute them. They don’t need heavy direction. They don’t need daily check-ins. They do what a manager would do – set the tone, assign items, determine what needs to get done, etc. – but they do it by themselves and for themselves.”

–Fried & Hansson, authors of the New York Times Bestseller, Rework, p. 220

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Profile Photo Kitty Wooley

And, by the way, Geoff Abbott, USCG-Retired, now a professor at the SEC’s College of Leadership Development, has done extensive work on “leading from the middle.” Not only does he have numerous Coast Guard stories to illustrate it, but he did his Ph.D. dissertation on it.

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Profile Photo Michael Stevens

Great job Scott. I went through a similar thing about four years ago – going from management with a contractor to taking an almost 50% pay cut and entry level position with a government agency. Best decision of my life. I see more of my family and friends, not to mention the stressors of management you write about went away. Recently, I’m being pushed back into management and the stressors are coming back… good thing is I can recognize them and deal better.

You seem like a go-getter too. The hard work to get to a position is tough to think about, along with swallowing your pride (I know it was for me). I applaud you for ignoring that and following through. Family, friends and your health should always come before career. Easier said than done. Good luck in the future.

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Profile Photo Jeffrey Levy

Hi Scott. As someone who talked you to you throughout, I commend you for recognizing what makes you happy and taking action to get it. Others have mentioned how you can lead from any position; in fact, that’s part of EPA’s leadership model. So I fully expect to see you continuing to help USGS and others in gov’t, including me.

Managing is a whole different skill set from doing the actual work. Equally valuable, but definitely different. I was just talking tonight to a friend about how much I admired a former colleague who recognized managing wasn’t for him, and then I came home to find this post from you.

So, congrats, and again, I look forward to continuing to learn from you!

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Profile Photo Jack Shaw

Scott,

I truly agree with you–especially in your situation and so glad it worked out well for you. What good managers you have!

You knew what needed to happen, advised them and they supported you. That is great! The way it should be. Leaders do that. I agree with Susan: “The fact that you were so well supported in this wise, but uncommon move by your managers is a testment to their integrity and training for their roles!”

…but there are some cautions to those employees who may not be as respected by their managers–who may be told, “Gee, after all the work I did to get you promoted, or may be told, “if you don’t like the change, stay where you are until another slot is available,” and you can’t always go as you expect it to. Some employers will support you all the way and even give you positive accolades on your evaluation. For some employees whose employers haven’t been honest with them…

Problem: there is no guarantee. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea; I think it’s great to do what you are best at and what you love.

For everyone: be careful. Make sure you are the “shining star” the boss tells you at review time. You are admitting your strengths and weaknesses and that is where some employers will take advantage of that admission of a weakness and highlight that rather than your frankness. Some bosses tell that to everyone. I had one supervisor who made any of her staff feel (when he or she were sitting with her on a one-on-one) each member was her best employee–that each was a special confident. Once you realize it, the employee doesn’t know what to believe. Of course this doesn’t create a trustful situation (unlike your situation) and is a good morale breaker.

So, it doesn’t always work. It is also a way when an employer has to admit to making a mistake promoting and can blame you in the end, or the informal “leadership” role may disappear when you go back to the ranks.

Being a manager does require different skills and there are different types of managers so be careful not to leap at a promotion opportunity as many have pointed out here, and I agree. Make sure it is what you want; the extra money, if there is any, may not be worth the headache and career move later to something more to your liking.

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Profile Photo Toccara Horsey

Kudos to you Scott!! Such an amazing story. I made a similar move when I realized that I was absolutely miserable and burnt out by newfound responsibilities. I took a job at a lower grade and I am much happier.

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

@Kitty…thank you.

@Michael: So you’ve been through something similar and you can relate, but you recognized your strengths so you know you’re boundaries. That’s a great thing. Congratulations.

@Jeffrey: Agreed that managing is just as fulfilling…if that’s what you’re comfortable doing. It’s not for everyone. But I don’t plan to rest on my laurels, trust me. Already working on bigger things 🙂

@Jack: All good points you make. While having more money is always a plus-up, it’s definitely not the reason why I wanted to become a supervisor…and I actually didn’t get any additional money for making that move. I honestly made the move because I saw it as an opportunity to make some real change, and move further into the leadership of the organization. I had big dreams and aspirations for five years out…and even shared those with a fellow colleague during a supervisory training class last year. But, as I mentioned, I realized that I could still be a leader and still have influence in the areas that I’m comfortable with, but without having to be a manager of people. Supervising is a whole different ball game as Jeffrey and others have pointed out. So, if I’m not going to be managing people, then I’m going to do a damn good job doing what I love to do…not saying that I haven’t been doing that already…but I’m not going to stop.

Yes, I am lucky to have good managers. I do think it’s rare. So, I’m fortunate to be in a place that making that kind of decision and stepping down is discussed, understood, and accepted. Not every office will be like that and so people do need to recognize when they’re in an office like that and in a position to make that kind of decision.

Thanks for the great discussion everyone!

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Profile Photo Samuel F Doucette

That took a lot of guts. I’ve been a supervisor for over two years now, and I can tell you that it’s not always easy. I welcome anyone who comes to me and is honest with me about what’s going on in their professional lives — good and bad. I also try to do that with my boss.

I will add to this thread that sometimes the best jobs are the ones you never take. I’ve been offered what seemed like good opportunities several times in my career and turned them down after weighing the pros and cons and finding out the cons outweighed the pros. With 20/20 hindsight, I’ve been proven right. Shakespeare’s timeless wisdom “Know thyself” plays out here.

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Satish Nongtdu

This is the very best lesson I’ve ever learned, Thank you Scott.

You had strongly encouraged to do something what is right for me through this short true life story.

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Tom Sawyer

It depends on how that self-demotion came about voluntarily or not. Case and point, my brother-in-law, who is a Vietnamese-American, had constructively self-demoted himself while working for the Social Security Administration, a well-known federal agency with high public exposure. All kinds of personal attack tactics were used to discriminated, harassed, intimidated, belittled, and bullied him into self-demotion. It was the worst personal and professional experience of his life. I was told that it was not as shocked and painful for him with the self-demotion as the viciousness that comes among that agency’s various departmental personnel including their version of EEOC Office called “OCREO”.

He thinks that it is now Open Season on himself and other Asian-Americans employees like him. I said that his prolonged constructive self-demotion shows that the Bamboo Glass-Ceiling is totally embraced by that agency, but he said that Asian-Americans, especially their male employees who work in the field offices. So, it is now up for debate?!

Unfortunately, that debate would come at such a high cost for him and his family in the past several years.
Just a different view on self-demotion.

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