Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 192
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Tough Times Make Tough Bosses

A simple precaution saves much misery when managers must deliver bad news.

Imagine driving down a familiar highway while thinking of a perplexing problem. You're distracted, and you don't notice a red traffic signal and a car crossing your path until it's too late to avoid hitting it. You've caused an accident!! You aren't hurt, but the people in the car you broadsided are hurt. You rush to them and see their blood and pain, and you hear their cries for help.

Emotions flood your mind and blot out the first aid rules you learned in driver training. Your thinking is confused, and you lose confidence in your decisions. And you're afraid. You caused all this misery. What's going to happen to you?

Now take a deep breath and imagine this scene once again, but this time assume the role of a witness. You're not involved in this accident, so you think more clearly, you're surer of your decisions, and you're not worried about what's going to happen to you.

The difference, of course, is responsibility - blame. Blame intrudes into judgment. It causes people to behave poorly and uncharacteristically. It causes them to make matters worse when they're forced to act.

So what's all this got to do with management?

Robert Folger from Tulane University is interested in downsizing, the laying off of competent, reliable employees when business fortunes catch companies with bloated payrolls. Folger noticed frequent anecdotal reports in the popular press of companies employing grossly insensitive practices when downsized employees are given the bad news.

One manager assembled all the employees in the department and read aloud the names of those who had lost their jobs. Another manager inserted pink slips into payroll envelopes and never spoke to the affected employees at all. Another manager delivered the bad news abruptly and had security people escort the employee off company property with instructions to prevent the person from returning.

Folger suspected something besides sadistic personalities or managerial incompetence must be causing the responsible managers in these cases to act in this manner, so he devised an experiment to test his ideas.

Like the driver in the example described above, Folger suspected reactions to blame intruded into these managers' thinking. Perhaps they had made decisions that had turned sour. Perhaps these decisions had hurt business. Maybe they didn't foresee a consequence they should have foreseen, or perhaps they ignored a warning that seemed quite obvious after the fact. After all, if it's obvious to them, maybe it's obvious to the employees who are losing their jobs, too. Maybe they'll say something or do something.

Folger's experiment placed a number of experienced managers in a simulation exercise that included a layoff problem, and all these managers had had experience laying off employees. Included in the instructions were 2 different attributions of blame, one placing it partly on the managers themselves, and the other blaming external business conditions. Half the managers got one attribution of blame, and half got the other.

Folger watched how the managers reacted, and there was a clear difference. The blamed managers planned to dispatch these employees quickly and minimize their contact with them. The blame-free mangers planned to spend significantly more time with them and to try to help them cope with their sudden lack of employment.

Regardless of blame, executives want their employees treated humanely. It's just good business, and it doesn't matter if these employees are about to become former employees. They're still going to go out into the community and have things to say about their experience, and the remaining employees will not soon forget the treatment their former coworkers received.

Executives can help their managers and prevent them from creating this problem simply by reassuring managers that they aren't to blame when they get the bad news they must deliver to their employees. This simple precaution will enable managers to act responsibly, just as the accident witness can act, free of the shackles that blame places on a competent, compassionate mind.

It's the least we can do.

Reference: Folger, Robert and Daniel P. Skarlicki. (1998) When Tough Times Make Tough Bosses: Managerial Distancing as a Function of Layoff Blame. Academy of Management Journal, 41 (1), 79-87.

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