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Can I Be a High Performer and Still Get Fired?


The first time I heard about 'invisible scripts' was from Ramit Sethi when I first started working. He wrote a lot about the psychology of money and personal finances. Basically, 'invisible scripts' are the stories we tell ourselves without realizing we are even doing so.


One of the most powerful invisible scripts that I came across recently has to do with getting laid off from my job. Here it is -

If I get fired, there must have been something wrong with me - my capabilities or my performance.

While we should all use transitional periods such as these to reflect on both our accomplishments as well as our shortcomings, we need to also recognize that getting fired isn't a direct reflection of our self-worth and value.


So, here are 4 reasons why talented people get fired despite being capable -


The Pandemic

This one goes without saying, but I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway. The pandemic has changed the way that businesses operate, customers purchase, and employees perform. These changes have had significant impacts that are mostly out of our control as employees.


Many businesses were not prepared to operate in the realities of the pandemic. Whether that means a lack of digital presence or inability to operate in a socially distanced manner. These realities are outside of employees' control and have lead to several furloughs and layoffs.


Customer purchasing habits have also changed drastically with a significant portion of the workforce staying home. Retail has suffered, direct-to-customer businesses have thrived and streaming services are booming. For the losers in the marketplace, layoffs were often disconnected from the individual performance of employees.


The tough thing about performance is that it can decrease or increase in the short term. With the stress and anxiety created by the pandemic and the fact that we all respond differently in difficult situations. It's easy to understand why our performance could have dipped despite being highly capable.


Downsizing, Re-Orgs, Streamlining

I've seen a few reorganizations during my career. On one hand, figuring out an organizational structure that will support the needs of a company in the future is critical. On the other hand, a poorly executed (poorly sustained) reorg is not only devastating to employees but often misses the mark of supporting the company.


Remember the hidden script, 'if I get fired, there must have been something wrong with me.' Let's dispel that myth right away and highlight 3 critical considerations that impact reorganizations.


Pay Grade

It sounds awful, but if the primary driver for reorganizations is cost-cutting, high earners are often prioritized for layoffs even when their performance is commendable.


Last in, First Out

There is often an unofficial policy at many organizations that the last person hired is often the first person to get let go in a downsizing, where performance is a secondary consideration.


Rightsizing the Structure

Often companies can end up with bloated structures that are not rightsized or structured for success including redundant roles and priority changes. These changes may make a current role obsolete despite the performance of the employee occupying it.


"Cultural Fit"

The elephant in the room is that 'cultural fit' can be used as code to bar employees from getting hired simply for being different. There needs to be vigilance to ensure that this concept doesn't become code to create a barrier of entry solely based on personal preference.


That being said, companies have a culture that is pervasive and influential with how work gets done. And some employees perform well within that cultural structure and others don't.


Some cultures are aggressive, 'Minnesota nice', direct or hierarchical. We also bring ourselves to work daily. We index on our scale of behavior and have our preferences. Often, these are the same preferences that have given us success in our past performances.


Unfortunately, there can be discrepancies between our professional preference for how we show up as employees and the company culture we work in. It's often less about WHAT we get done and more about HOW we adhere to the specific company culture.


This discrepancy can often lead to an employee being let go. That is, despite the performance that the employee has been able to demonstrate.


Manager Misalignment

It is often said that the most important relationship in any company is the relationship between a manager and their employee. It's also said that employees don't quit companies, they quit their boss. And, the opposite of that is true as well.


Historically, this relationship has been viewed as a manager providing instructions and the employee executing said instruction. It's often seen as a linear relationship where authority is not challenged, few questions are asked and instructions are quietly completed.


However, the expectations of the manager-employee relationship have changed over the years. Many managers now view the role as partners that collaborate with their direct reports while they provide development and remove roadblocks. And, many employees have similar expectations.


Where there are significant discrepancies in the expectations of direct reports and managers, conflict often arises. Fundamental differences about roles and responsibilities make it difficult to find common ground, often spilling over into perception and performance.


Couple personality clashes along with fundamental differences and you can get an employee being removed because of poor feedback from their managers. Managers often act as the company's evaluators of talent. Personality and expectations differences can easily overtake performance and lead to an employee's removal.


We all must internalize that our relationships with the companies that we work for don't define us as professionals and more importantly as people. It's easy to slip into that mindset and my hope is that I've provided enough insights today to offer alternatives to the thinking that getting laid off automatically means that we are poor performers.