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Bad Bosses Do More Than Kill Productivity -They Can Kill Employees

No one influences an employee\'s morale and productivity more than his or her supervisor. It\'s that simple.

October 16, 2008
Related Topics: Technology
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It seems there’s always a steady supply of sympathy available for anyone stuck working under a bad boss. We’ve all been there at one time or another, slaving under a tyrant who somehow manages to survive in this world without people skills. Heck, sometimes the boss even knows it’s a problem.

Consider this: When I wrote The Emotional Intelligence Quick Book in 2005, the book revealed that 70 percent of people do not handle conflict and stress effectively at work, just 36 percent understand their emotions as they happen and only 15 percent of people feel respected and valued at work.

According to a recent study published in Human Resource Executive magazine, a third of U.S. employees waste at least 20 hours of work time each month complaining about their bosses. Lost productivity from employees who are dissatisfied with their bosses results in the loss of $360 billion each year for U.S corporations, according to Gallup Poll. If there’s one hard truth the Gallup Poll has taught these corporations in the past decade, it’s that people may join companies, but they will leave bosses.

No one influences an employee’s morale and productivity more than his or her supervisor. It’s that simple. Yet, as common as this knowledge may seem, it clearly hasn’t been enough to change the way managers and organizations treat people. Few companies recognize the degree to which managers are the vessels of a company’s culture, and even fewer work diligently to ensure their vessels hold the knowledge and skills that motivate employees to perform, feel satisfied and love their jobs.

In the days of a strong dollar, bulging tech bubble and robust housing market, people working for a bad boss had options. Careers were mobile, and talent was in short supply. It was a snap to pack up and leave. But nowadays, things are decidedly different. Jobs are scarce, and the prudent worker stays put, even if he or she is working under what I like to call the seagull manager.

The roots of seagull management can be traced back to the days when “micromanager” was the worst non-expletive you could utter behind your boss’ back. Managers’ fear of this label has grown so intense, they keep their distance from employees, assuming a good boss is one who spends as little time as possible breathing down people’s necks.

Some managers can even stick it out for a while. They keep their distance. They give people room to breath. That is, until they spot someone who needs their help. But instead of taking the time to get the facts straight and working alongside their staff to realize a viable solution, reformed micromanagers swoop in at the last minute, squawk at everybody and deposit steaming piles of formulaic advice before abruptly taking off and leaving behind an even bigger mess.

Seagull managers interact with their employees only when there’s a fire to put out. Even then, they move in and out so hastily — and put so little thought into their approach — they make bad situations worse by frustrating and alienating those who need them the most.

Today, seagull managers are breeding like wildfire. As companies flatten in response to the struggling economy, they are gutting management layers and leaving behind managers with more autonomy, greater responsibility and more people to manage. That means they have less time and less accountability to manage people.

It’s easy to spot a seagull manager when you’re on the receiving end of the airborne dumps, but the manager doing the swooping, squawking and dumping often is unaware of the negative impact of his or her behavior. That’s where the talent leader comes in. Your managers need to be equipped with skills that will enable them to succeed in the primary purpose of their jobs — managing people — even when competing pressures and priorities monopolize their attention.

To minimize the negative effects of seagull behavior in the workplace, you don’t want each manager addressing whether or not he or she is a seagull manager. Each manager must discover when and where he or she succumbs to seagull tendencies. Every single one of us is a seagull manager sometimes, in some situations, with some people.

Once managers understand this, they can follow strategies to eradicate the negative influences of seagull behavior:

1.    Make sure expectations are full-fledged. The seagull manager creates the need to swoop in and set the team straight; the superior manager gets everyone headed in the right direction from the very beginning by ensuring expectations are fully revealed.
2.    Get communication to click. The rare visit from the seagull manager results in a lot of squawking; the superior manager maintains a steady flow of clear, reciprocal communication.
3.    Keep your paws on performance. The seagull manager manages his or her team’s performance by swooping in and dumping on everybody, the superior manager ensures he or she is present to deliver positive and negative feedback in small, digestible doses.

Seagull managers aren’t just a U.S. phenomenon. After reading a study that found employees have lower blood pressure on the days they worked for a supervisor they think is fair, researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon. It followed British civil servants for 15 years to see if the type of boss one works for has any impact on long-term, physical health.

The researcher’s findings cast a grave shadow on the otherwise humorous metaphor of a seagull manager. The team from Helsinki found seagull-type managerial behaviors lead to a much higher incidence of employee coronary heart disease. In fact, employees working for a seagull manager were 30 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who do not.

What’s more, the incidence of coronary heart disease — the No. 1 killer in Western societies — was measured after the researchers had removed the influence of typical risk factors, such as age, ethnicity, marital status, educational attainment, socioeconomic position, cholesterol level, obesity, hypertension, smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity.

In too many U.S. organizations senior leadership is unschooled in the profoundly negative impact seagull managers have on their bottom line. The very individuals with the authority to alter the course of company culture lack the facts that would impel them to do so.

Lucky for senior leadership in your company, they hired you to manage talent, and seagull managers won’t be pecking at their bottom line for long.

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