Seagull Managers an Unexpected Consequence of Layoffs

As companies slash the workforce and flatten in response to the sluggish economy, managers must sharpen their "emotional intelligence" to ensure a successful post-layoff work environment

The recent announcement that the U.S. economy lost more than a half million jobs in November, the most in nearly three decades, brings the total to more than 1.2 million jobs sacrificed this calendar year. Unemployment now sits at 6.7 percent — the worst percentage since 1994 — and it's expected to reach 8 percent by the second quarter of 2009.

When employers slash jobs it's tempting to view them as selfish profiteers who, like Scrooge McDuck, wait out the storm sitting upon their mounds of gold. The reality for employers is layoffs are a terrifying business proposition that is rife with risk. In the 1990s, business analysts studied the productivity losses created by vague syndromes including "survivor guilt" after layoffs, but these days our understanding of the business implications post layoffs are far more concrete.

Unexpected Consequence: Seagull Managers

Layoffs breed "seagull managers" like wildfire. Instead of taking the time to get the facts straight and work alongside their staff to realize a viable solution, seagull managers 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 than when they started. Seagulls 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 — that they make bad situations worse by frustrating and alienating those who need them the most.

As companies slash their workforce and flatten in response to the sluggish economy, they gut management layers and leave behind managers with more autonomy, greater responsibility and more people to manage. That means they have less time and less accountability for the primary purpose of their jobs: managing 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 is often unaware of the negative impact of his or her behavior.

According to a recent study published in Human Resource Executive magazine, a third of U.S. workers currently spend a minimum of 20 hours per month around the water cooler complaining about their boss. The Gallup Poll estimates U.S. corporations lose $360 billion annually due to lost productivity from employees who are dissatisfied with — you guessed it — their boss. And if there's but one hard truth the Gallup Polls have taught U.S. corporations in the last decade, it's that people may join companies, but they will leave bosses.

Unexpected Solution: Emotional Intelligence

Successful navigation of the post-layoff work environment requires an exceptional amount of "emotional intelligence" (EQ), especially if you manage people. Emotional intelligence is that "something" that can seem a bit intangible in each of us. It gives a name to how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.

Emotional intelligence has four pillars: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self-awareness is understanding your emotions as they happen and also knowing your tendencies (how you tend to respond to different situations and people). Self-management is what you do with the knowledge that flows from self-awareness, which often equates to choosing a different course of action than you might naturally succumb to. Social awareness is how well you understand the emotions and behavior of other people and why they do what they do. Relationship management is how you use the first three skills as you interact with other people.

Managers who focus on using their emotional intelligence tend to do five simple things that serve them well in overcoming their seagull tendencies:

1) Don't Pass the Buck: When you set expectations for your staff, make sure you're the one explaining what will be expected of them — don't pass the buck to someone else.

2) Check In Everyday: Make your communication with your team frequent and sincere. You can't help people get results if you don't know how they're doing.

3) Block Time to Do Your Real Job: Schedule time in your calendar each day where you can be up and out of your desk, focusing solely on the needs of your team. Remember, as a manager, the primary purpose of your job is managing people.

4) Leave Your Door Open: Seagull managers lose touch partially because they're not approachable.

5) Show Them the Way: When it comes to managing performance, balance praise with constructive criticism. Your team needs you to show them when they're doing things right, as well as when they're off track.

There's an old Chinese proverb that says, "Give a man a pole, and he'll catch a fish a week. Tell him what bait to use, and he'll catch a fish a day. Show him how and where to fish, and he'll have fish to eat for a lifetime." A high degree of emotional intelligence is not something we're born with; it has to be honed with knowledge and practice. Even though learning to use your EQ can feel a lot like fishing in an unfamiliar lake, what you catch can ensure your survival in any economy.