I recently came across one short, sharp blog post that I should (and probably will) add to our list of Crackers, but which has – as the best bits of blogging should – inspired further thought. The post was Derek Bobo’s Negative reward for positive performance – or, as Derek put it:

 … when you do something great for the company or for your boss and the reward for good work is getting more crap to deal with.”

We’ve seen – and commented here on – an interesting variation on this recently with British Airways, but this is ultimately another incarnation of the impact of what Michael Madison first defined as seagull managers. If you’re not familiar with the term, it can be defined as “A manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, poops all over everything, then leaves.” Unfortunately, you don’t need a beach-side office to be au fait with the phenomenon: seagull managers may be many things, but “endangered” isn’t one of them.

Unlikely as it may be as a source for the following quotation, Wikipedia offers the following explanation for the seeming upturn in the numbers of the species in recent years:

The term Seagull Manager has gained popularity in the workplace in recent years as companies flatten their corporate structure in response to the competitive changes created by new technology, industry regulation, and expanding global trade. The result is a gutting of management layers where the remaining managers are left with more autonomy, responsibility, and more people to manage, meaning they have less time and less accountability for focusing on the primary purpose of their position — managing people.”

At least this gives us a rationale, if no actual cause for comfort. Indeed, I’m left thinking that while HR functions in many organisations have mastered an aspect of their ambit that’s probably closer to the remit of marketing – the presentation of the organisation not just as somewhere where people matter, where human capital is nurtured and developed and where everyone truly is “one big happy family” – the actual “family” underneath is dysfunctional to a degree that makes The Simpsons look more like a Disney confection from a by-gone age.

In actual families that behave with a chronic (and, indeed, acute) disrespect for each other and which not only tolerate but actively model totally unhelpful behaviours, the outcome usually includes things far removed from promotion, efficiency and greater productivity: things more like social services, care homes and restraining orders, in fact.

It’s hard to know if the best efforts of social workers in the wider world have a greater success rate in tackling these parallel issues than those in the workplace who recognise the damage that “seagull management” can cause, but its harmfulness is undoubted. Here’s an extract from the synopsis of one article at Emerald Insight:

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 is that simple. Yet, as common as this knowledge may seem, it clearly has not been enough to change the way that managers and organizations treat people.”

In a comment on another blog focused more on Knowledge Management, my colleague Naysan Firoozmand recently wondered aloud if there is a way of addressing ‘behavioural management’ – the sharing and encouraging of behaviours that truly benefit both individuals and the organisation – other than the formulation of rules and protocols. (It’s not just knowing what we shouldn’t do that’s the problem: it’s the actually not doing it that matters.)

Just as social media might yet support KM by enabling a designated person in each working unit to be a recorder, monitor and dispenser-of-shortcuts-to wisdom – although whatever happened to ‘librarians’ or ‘mentors’ – might the wiser organisation not evolve a role of (say) “Wisdom Worker”? Someone to provide in-the-moment micro-coaching (to borrow Meg Bear’s lovely expression), counsel and advice. Someone to point the errant in the right direction and show them the folly of their ways. Someone to support them as they learn to behave more effectively, productively, and wisely. I get the sinking feeling we used to have them and they used to be called … oh yes, line managers.

Ultimately, this is an aspect of organisational life where the improvement really needs to start at the top. To overcome a culture that currently cascades neglect and disrespect, you need senior managers who not just encourage but model a better way. If you’re getting tired of waiting for that to happen in your organisation, we offer you three alternatives:

  1. Read one of the thousands of articles about how to live with a seagull manager
  2. Heed the advice of a recent David Bowie song: “Don’t stay in a bad place where they don’t care how you are”. Running away would be better for you, and not just for the exercise.
  3. Adopt Aretha Franklin as a role model …

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