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Falling ManThe Fall

His boss flew over to sack him. He was stunned. It felt like the walls were collapsing around him. A cold wind cut through his skin. He had not expected this. He thought they would discuss the new plans. That was what he had prepared for. He spent all week, including the weekends, to build further on the excellent results he and his team had produced the previous years.
When the boss told him the news, he was numb. He could not think. It  was like his brain shut down. The boss was talking and he did not listen. He heard the voice but could not register. He was answering but he can’t remember how. The world had stopped around him. And he was falling.

The Conversation

Falling Man: Why?
Boss: I just told you. You are not digital enough. The company wanted to become more digital, less analog.

Falling Man: You haven’t asked me to be digital before. You haven’t seen the plans my team and I have prepared for the next years. How do you know I am not digital enough? There’s a lot of digital in the plans. And there was a lot of digital in the way we got our results.

You can’t be digital. You are the wrong generation.

Falling Man:
How can there be a wrong generation? There is only right or wrong behaviour. Have I not delivered on targets? There was not a single year that I have let the company down. I have cleared up the mess for others. I have spent Christmas Eve on the other side of the globe in a godforsaken country where it is probably illegal to celebrate Christmas. I did that for the company and missed the best time of the year. My family had accepted it. It was for the good cause. My sacrifices for the company were great. I do not expect gratitude. I expect respect. I. Expect. Respect. 
The past is the past. We can only look at the future. In that future there is no place for men and women of the past. It is time for something new. Something disruptive. You stand for continuity, not disruption. And so there was a joint decision by the executive committee, endorsed by the board, that you should make way for the new generation of leaders. The ones who grew up behind a console. The digital natives. They will disrupt this company.
Falling Man (FM):
Why would the company throw away years of experience and years of potential. I can still deliver value. I am not too old.

It’s not your age. It’s your skills. You cannot keep up with new trends. You are a traditionalist. Your skills date from a time when everything was predictable. It’s not what you did, it’s about what you will not do.
I see that you have made up your mind, even though your argumentation is ludicrous and meaningless. What is the offer?
You will get paid generously. You need not to work until the age of retirement. You can enjoy life. See it as a liberation.
I don’t want to be liberated. I want to work, be useful, make myself relevant. I don’t want your pieces of silver. You nail me to the cross and smile. You say it’s not that bad. You say I should be happy with it. As if you do me a favour. Well, I don’t need favours. I need respect. Dignity. Fairness. 

You take it badly. These things happen. You should know. Whatever the reason, you should not take it personally.

You fire me, and I should not take it personally? How dare you?

He felt his blood pumping. His face got overheated. His eyes were spiking him to the wall. His fists were white with anger. He felt the tension in his body. The more the boss talked the more furious he became.
Well, I think you’re making a terrible mistake. You’re wasting a lot of money for nothing. But I know that you are just the messenger and that you are not the man to stand up against the executive committee. So I cannot blame you for this cowardice. I cannot expect a man like you to defend me and treat me in a dignified manner. So I suggest we could leave it here and get the paperwork done.

I’m glad you see it like that.
So let me get back to work. I have some work to finish.
There was an awkward moment of Silence. The boss stared at the corner of the table. And finally he spoke.
 You have to fill your box and leave immediately. And you’re not allowed to talk to anyone in the office when leaving the building. I’m sorry, but those are my instructions.

The Frozen Fall

Falling Man

Picture taken at Tate Gallery London

Months later one could still feel the pain in his words. He still could not understand. Oh yes, he understood the mechanics behind it. But he did not see the value of it. Here he was, looking for a new mission in life. His soul was scarred, he said. They made him stumble and he fell. It’s like he fell naked on raw concrete. His entire body ached.
He’s like the statue “Falling Man” by Giacometti, a fragile sculpture of man in a frozen fall. He stumbled and he fell. But it was a long fall. He seemed to be stuck in his fall. There was nothing for him than to resist and to protest.
He was working in the business of a friend.
But he missed the glory. The excitement. Everything was so predictable and so small. Every day is the same. He felt so unimportant.
What would he want?
He would prefer to be on a board or an executive committee.
I’m like a German God on a Volcano, he whispered. Nobody believes in me, yet I feel I have force.

I’m like a German God on a Volcano, he whispered. Nobody believes in me, yet I feel I have force.

Falling Man

This story is partly fictitious, although inspired by a true encounter with a falling man. I have met many people who were frozen in their. As if the act of falling prevents them from taking the hit. 
Here are some questions:

  • Why can’t they stop falling?
  • What must be done to help these people?
  • How can we prevent that people feel it’s a fall? What else could it be?
  • What does this say about their resilience?
  • What do people in a frozen fall need to get out of it?
  • What are the other questions we should ask to better understand and help falling people?
  • How can we make difficult decisions like that better, more empathic, less a surprise, more kind, and more fair?

I know these are just questions, and not answers. But maybe we should first define the list of questions to ask, rather than stampeding into the solutions.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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