Articles :: That Bad Boss is Killing You ::

Travis Bradberry Ph.D. · 09-27-2008 · Category: Guides


It seems there’s always a steady supply of sympathy available for anyone stuck working under a bad boss. Everyone I know has been there at one time or another, working under a tyrant who somehow manages to survive in this world without people skills. If you haven’t had a boss like this, you should consider buying a lottery ticket—and I mean soon. You really are that lucky. And the epidemic of terrible bosses really is that bad. According to a recent study published in Human Resource Executive magazine, a third of US workers spend a minimum of twenty hours per month in the office complaining about their boss. The Gallup Poll estimates US corporations lose 360 billion dollars 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 US Corporations in the last decade, it’s that people may join companies, but they will leave bosses.

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 that 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 that 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 than when they started.

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—that 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 for focusing on the primary purpose of their job—managing people.

As it turns out, seagull managers aren’t just a US 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. They followed British civil servants for a period of fifteen years to see if the type of boss one works for has any impact upon long-term, physical health.

The researcher’s findings cast a grave shadow upon the otherwise humorous metaphor of a seagull manager. The team from Helsinki found that 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% more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who do not. What’s more, the incidence of coronary heart disease—the #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, socio-economic position, cholesterol level, obesity, hypertension, smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity.

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 that 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 that their vessels hold the knowledge and skills that motivate employees to perform, feel satisfied, and love their jobs. As you head back to work this week, here’s to the hope that you won’t be spending your days in the shadow of a seagull manager.

Even the good guys can succumb to seagull tendencies once they are promoted into management. Just consider Scott Adams, the wildly successful creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Last year, after more than 20 years of poking fun at management culture, Adams decided to step in and try his hand at managing a restaurant he had co-owned for years from a safe distance. Adams’ foray into the rough-and-tumble world of management was a humbling one. At least Adams, unlike most bosses, was open about his shortcomings, “I’m quite sure I’ve succumbed to.…flying in every so often and dumping on everything.” Indeed. There is a seagull manager born every minute.


  1. Introduction
  2. Three Surefire Strategies to Ground Your Seagull Tendencies
  3. About SQUAWK!

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