Analyze This

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

Since being laid off from a senior position, I’ve been freelancing as a consultant–at a lower level. I’m having a tough time making the adjustment. I find I want to weigh in on top-level decisions that aren’t mine to make. And I’m worried that my self-esteem–along with my sense of who I am–is being eroded. – Anonymous, New York

Your experience sounds like a variation on “phantom limb syndrome,” in which a person receives signals from a limb that’s no longer there. Clinging to the phantom executive inside you, I suspect, is your way of dealing with the loss of your job–and your authority. The best cure, of course, is a new and better position, but that may take a while.

How to cope in the interim? The strong emotions you’re feeling now will fade in time, but only if you don’t make matters worse by punishing yourself. You’ve suffered a blow, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose your self-respect or your sense of who you are. In my experience advising CEOs who have lost their jobs, such feelings (including a sense of humiliation) are frequently self-imposed.

Who is most vulnerable to that self-inflicted pain? Those who derive too much of their identity from their job and its trappings. Now is a good time to do some soul-searching about what work means to you. This might be painful, but it will pay off, and not just in your private life: You’ll be a more effective manager. Which brings me to the silver lining I see in your situation: the chance to recall what it feels like to hold a midlevel job and the opportunity to view top managers from below. Both will yield insights you can take with you when you’re back on your feet.

Meanwhile, until you get a new job or decide that consulting is for you, keep resisting the urge to direct projects that aren’t your responsibility. Doing so, as you seem to intuit, will alienate your current colleagues (and lay open your wounds). Instead, try casting yourself as a person who happens to have special expertise–one who’s honest about why he’s now in a temp job. Finally, forget the “career ladder” metaphor. Satisfying work, like a satisfying life, is rarely achieved through a straight, upward climb.