Why Being Great At Your Job Can Be A Dangerous Thing

Why Being Great At Your Job Can Be A Dangerous Thing

Hard work and competence should be rewarded, but that’s not always what happens. Sometimes, when you do great work at a company, you not only get shafted but kicked to the kerb. Jeffrey Steele, writing for personal finance blog Five Cent Nickel, offers up a cautionary tale about being too competent.

Photo by Leremy (Shutterstock).

A colleague within his organisation left on a sabbatical, and Ned was tabbed to cover both his own responsibilities and the sales functions of the departing co-worker. The following weeks proved pivotal.

Ned not only shouldered his own duties with his customary aplomb, but injected fresh new insights into the sales position. Under Ned’s stewardship, sales and revenues climbed to levels never before tallied by the firm.

That’s when Ned’s boss “got it”. Not only was Ned good, he was too good. Any more brilliance from him, and she might be leapfrogged on the corporate ladder by the very man whose job performance she graded. When Ned’s next job review came around, he had reason to expect an even more glowing appraisal. Instead, his boss tore into him, ripping his decision-making skills and marginalising his contributions to the company. And from all accounts she managed to pull it off with a straight face.

Maybe she thought he’d get mad and quit, but that didn’t happen. So she began hinting, first subtly and then more baldly, that Ned should look elsewhere for employment. Ned finally was forced out, his boss kept her post and large paycheck, and the firm lost a vital contributor.

It’s unlikely that this situation is the norm, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard a story about a paranoid boss trying to sabotage a lower-ranked employee. While this is no reason to put less effort into your job, it is a reason to keep your confidence at a reasonable level. You never know what may happen, even if you’re an incredible asset. Steele recommends keeping a few months worth of pay as savings in case of unemployment. While this is always good advice, it’s the kind of advice many people ignore when they think their job is safe. A lack of competency isn’t the only thing that can get you laid off, so always be prepared.

What a Threat Begets [Five Cent Nickel via The Consumerist]


  • Another side to this is companies rewarding incompetence with higher positions, whilst keeping the people who are doing great work, and showing potential are kept doing the lower jobs, because they do it well! The company I was last at worked this way, and it can get pretty difficult to see people who constantly perform lower than everyone else getting the promotion or salary increase whilst the guys who are great at their job get to stay there for another 20 years! My advice, learn the work culture, if you want to get ahead, see how people around you get by, if the guy who has been there for 10 years is the one doing most of the best work, then its a good indicator that to succeed, you need to under perform!

    • I had a similar situation where I was refused promotions because they “needed me in my current role”. Pumping out figures better than their F/T sales staff, on less hours and doing a second role (as well as half the stuff the manager’s were supposed to be doing). If youre too good at your job, you may never be moved. If thats the case, find a new organization with a better culture and an appreciation for good staff, and quit your current job. — worked for me.

  • Wait a second… I know we all have bills to pay and you’ve gotta keep food on the table and roof overhead, so sometime you’ve got to hack it for a while. But should people really be rewarding companies who punish good work and promote incompetence by staying and doing the hard yards while someone else takes credit/doesn’t appreciate their work? If you have to do your job less well than you’re capable of and a keep a lid on your contribution for fear of scaring someone above you, aren’t you in the wrong job? Surely we want such a workplace go under by losing its quality talent to better situations?

    • mehdi, thats why I left my former employer, the job was great, but I couldn’t work at a place where incompetence was met with benefits and good work was met with nothing. Made it really difficult to stay enthused and keep doing good work. A place like that can really kill your career/work ethic. I thought it was best to leave and maintain my work ethic that remain, eventually drop down to the under achieving level and get promoted, eventually leave the company and be useless at any other company!

  • Seeing this happen right now to guy where I work. I have only been here a few months but seeing how they treat their hardest working and longest serving staff member makes me feel physically sick. I will be resigning asap.

  • Clicked on this story because it happens. A lot of people will do the bare minimum to get paid and will back-stab the hard-workers so it doesn’t just come from above, you get it from all directions.
    Glad I quit and started working for myself! Making more than $2k/week now 😀

  • Similar thing happened to me once when the company I worked for decided to delve into Blu Ray.
    The senior authors were not bothered to learn how to author them so being a graphics guy I took a 3 day course in Scenarist BD WITH THEM. In the end they left all the authoring up to me and I created some nifty templates to reduce production time. Even managed to pull off making deadline on our first ever major movie to blu-ray.

    Was all my hard work and effort to learn for the company rewarded?
    Big fat NOPE. Same thing happened. A review came up, and I was pulled to pieces in
    quite a personal manner. The boss even developed some kind of hatred towards me
    which was never there, just to make me feel so uncomfortable I just left after a while.

  • The moral of this story is don’t work for jerks. If you’re in a company where performance is punished and incompetence rewarded, either enjoy being incompetent, or find a better job.

  • If this guy really was as good as that, why did he not simply go to his 2 up manager when this happened and point out the obvious flaw in their review of him, thereby making himself a prime candidate for leap frogging the 1 up manager anyway.

    Also, why are employee reviews not being peer review? in every organisation ive ever worked in, whenever employee reviews are conducted, they must be peer reviewed before they can be submitted, specifically to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen

  • A common management technique is ‘promotion out of harm’s way’. At a previous place I worked at the most incompetent engineer was promoted to group manager, thereby minimising the level of harm done.

  • The moral of this story is: if you’re good at your job and getting lots of credit, let some of the glory flow uphill too, and keep everyone happy. Make your boss look good – your career will be well looked after.


  • the moral of the story is that the length of time is far too short. If I was Nick I would have held on. I would appealed to senior managers. Good work sells itself and you should never compromise simply because your one-up manager is sandbagging themselves.

  • It all comes down to something quite simple.

    A begets A
    B begets C

    A players will always want to be around A players because they are confident enough and won’t be threatened.
    B players will always want C to make them look good and boost their ego.

  • I more than doubled the performance of the team I manage compared to the last manager who is now my boss. I got a negative performance review. I corrected some made up info he said in meeting, that went down as me lacking empathy and not valuing others points of view!

  • I have a similar but different situation happening for me.
    I’m the only person in my company willing to try most jobs and I generally am quite good at all of them, while other employees only do a couple of roles.
    Initially I thought it would be beneficially for me, but I was wrong.
    I do such a good job doing everything that my workload is double everyone else’s for the same pay.

  • I’ve been in two major mining jobs, and my solitary, unbiased nature meant my obvious skills where effectively ignored (and crap dealt out instead) in each case. Things are better now because I understand (and play) the game more. I offer one piece of advice you should learn about the corporate world, especially if it is run by men (i.e. which is most of them). “The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf”. Work out the pack, pick your battles and rip them to shreds, but then protect them if they support you. Do this skillfully and you will lead the pack soon enough – IF you have the “talent”, “diplomacy” and “personality” skills… if you can’t lead, then pick who you follow wisely… in the corporate world there is no option to not play the game!

  • Ned’s fault. Should have kept a running log of all his accomplishments then thrown it in her face or did exactly what she was afraid of and leapfrogged her.

    • This is the problem, in a nutshell. Just as doing well in school relies on a balance between assignments, tests, exams and classwork, doing well in the workplace relies on productivity, accuracy, punctuality AND the ability to ace interviews, reviews and other official interactions. Dismissing those last three because they’re “B.S. politics” or whatever means you will never get the recognition you deserve, even if your actual work is outstanding.

      I’m far more interested in not being bothered than in corporate climbing or management roles, so I put out excellent quality work, but I’m not super-punctual and I won’t sacrifice my work-life balance just to hit a deadline. That makes me pretty much unique in an office full of people averaging 10-20 hours of unpaid overtime a week, but I’ll take my sanity over a promotion any day.

  • First, you gotta look out for number one. This is the life you have, it’s your responsibility, do you really want to put yourself in these kinds of situations? I’m guessing that if you have found yourself in this situation once, you’re forgetting the other times it happened or, it will happen to you again. Wake the frack up. I did.

    This contemporary workplace phenomenon is called the burden of capability (basically, a team always leans on the people who are good, the good people have more demanded of them, if they finish their tasks before anyone else, they get more work handed to them, they are EXPECTED to make a greater contribution). Remember the 80:20 rule, 20% of the people carry the other 80%. Most managers are in the 80%. LEADERS earn the respect and loyalty of their team through their commitment and actions. Managers inherit subordinates. Anyone can be a manager, but there are very few leaders, because this requires capability. So managers actively derail any leaders in their team in order to secure their control (because that’s all a manager has). The greatest managerial control is control over truth, a good example of this is taking credit where none is due, they do this in managerial meetings where you don’t see, this is also where (aside from performance reviews) they poison any chance of you progressing, either by not mentioning you at all (the Pharaohs used to delete each other from history for a reason) or assigning blame for their failure to you. I had a manager once say ‘I take full responsibility’ and then saw in a slide deck he’d presented that he’d spun the numbers and blamed his poor performance to a subordinate. I once fixed up a failing part of a business and the processes and stakeholders so well, they didn’t need me any more. BIG MISTAKE. If you are capable and competent, get ready for a good shafting from some political pin-dick who is getting rich off your hard work and laughing while he steps on your neck.

    The only way out of this is to go into business for yourself. Australia is one of the easiest places in the world to do this, and you can start part-time on the side. My suggesting, work at 75% effort 9-5 and 100% 5-9 for yourself. Make some money on the side, and grow a pair. I look forward to meeting some of the a-holes who made my work-life hard now that I’m kicking some serious arse for MYSELF.


    • If only it were that simple. Some people aren’t cut out for small business. I’m 25 and I’ve already failed at at self-employment. I didn’t have the interpersonal skills and confidence to make it work.

  • Im convinced my employer is trying to force me to quit. between the hour cuts and refusing to provide an appropriate phone for someone with a visual impairment equal to 30 percent vision.

  • This isn’t exactly the most empowering article. So the message is, if you are a good performer, still be prepared to be fired for unfair reasons. I thought there are unfair dismissal laws to protect people from this. And why are so many people perpetuating this problem by not speaking up and making as many people as possible, both inside and outside the organisation, that this is happening? At least, if you are going to quit, make sure you provide really open feedback at the exit interview. I’d rather be poor and know that I have spoken up in times of injustice rather than kissed arse to someone. Bad things happen when Good people do nothing!!

  • I know this is really old and not sure I’ll get reply. This situation is what I deal with. People who aren’t as good get promoted and those who are good get stuck. I’ve been trying to move up and not having any luck. I am getting older (50), but still enjoy working and would like to advance. I’ve decided to look elsewhere to advance my career as I don’t have a lot of time to wait for it to come along.

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