Is it Ever OK to Demote a Manager Back to Their Former Position?

Is it ever OK to demote a manager back to their former position? Your first, intuitive answer might be “hell, no!”

Some companies or managers won’t even allow it, under any circumstances.

But why not? It happens all the time in baseball. Major league players are “sent back to the minors” for further development, and sent back up to the majors if and when they are ready.

I’ve seen cases when moving a manager one level down in the organization has turned out to be a win-win for the manager and the organization. It’s usually happened when a technical expert was promoted either before they were ready or for the wrong reason, i.e., best sales rep promoted to sales manager, best engineer promoted to engineering manager, etc…
Why in the world would you want to lose the person who used to be the best performer in the group? Why should they pay for the organization’s dumb promotion mistake?

Besides, spending even a short time in a higher level role can be a developmental experience that can be leveraged for improved performance at the level below. That manager can now “see the big picture” and has an appreciation for why and how higher level decisions get made.

However – it probably won’t work, unless the following conditions are in place:

1. The new position is legitimate and justified – no “made-up” job to allow the person to save face or avoid having to fire someone. Being pushed aside into one of these roles isn’t compassionate at all – it can be humiliating and isn’t fair to the rest of employees doing real work.

2. No one is being bumped to make room for the manager. The exception to this would be as a result of a formal restructuring, when an organization wants to keep the best talent through a ranking and placement process. Still, even in this circumstance, it’s a crappy situation to walk into.

3. The manager is well qualified for the new position, or can get back up to speed quickly.

4. The manager is willing to make the move and is committed to succeed. The manager’s not going to do it kicking and screaming and holding a grudge. Yes, maybe they are willing to do it, and they can do it, but yes, they even have to like it. This is critical – success is all about attitude, and a new team member with a chip on the shoulder can poison a team. For some managers, it’s even a relief to go back to the old job they loved.

5. The manager didn’t burn too many bridges to get the support needed to be successful.

6. The manager is willing to take a cut in pay. The cut doesn’t have to come all at once – it can be gradually reduced or frozen in order to give the person a chance to adjust to the new salary.

7. Its better if the manager has the opportunity to do his/her new old job in a different group (new office, territory, division), but this isn’t always possible in smaller organizations or if relocation isn’t possible.

8. The manager should be given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to be considered for promotion again and be given the resources and support. The message isn’t “never again”, it’s “not now”.

I know there are lots of examples out there where this kind of move didn’t work – but if it didn’t, I’ll bet one or more of the conditions above were missing.

I’m thinking I might be an outlier on this question…. How about you, what’s your take on it?