Overpaid Do-Nothings

By David Noer
Freelance Columnist

Having confided in me that the current layoff provided a good opportunity to get rid of those “overpaid do-nothings” in marketing, the newly appointed general manager stood on a table in the employee cafeteria and addressed his new employees. This is a paraphrase of his comments: “Since you were lucky enough to keep your jobs,” he shouted, “I expect you to work extra hard to make this organization lean and mean. This won’t be the last layoff. I’m good at cost control, and I personally intend to monitor everyone’s performance.”

Pausing and looking over the mute and stunned audience, he sternly continued, “I won’t tolerate any grousing and whining. Now let’s stop wasting time and get to work.”

As a consultant, I had what proved to be the impossible task of convincing him that “lean and mean” strategies often translated to “sad, angry and unproductive” employees and that he had become the poster child for three classic traps that prevent leaders from revitalizing downsized organizations. Because private and public organizations throughout Greensboro, Guilford County and our region are caught up in an international epidemic of layoffs and cost-cutting, understanding the dangers of these traps can be helpful to both managers and employees.

The Gunnysacking Trap

Gunnysacking is a term for storing up hurt feelings, anger, affronts and unresolved conflicts, and, when the weight of the psychological gunnysack becomes too heavy to bear, unloading it, often to an inappropriate degree in an inappropriate context.

We all gunnysack to some extent — think of your relationship with your spouse or significant other — but most of us find ways to keep our bags relatively light. Unfortunately, organizational leaders are not immune to gunnysacking, often burdened by heavy bags for years and using a crisis mode of operation as an authorization to unleash long-repressed feelings of anger and frustration by figuratively beating their fellow employees about the head with their overloaded gunnysacks.

In layoffs this takes the form of those in power “getting” both functions and people that frustrated them in the past but were protected by a more tolerant organizational culture. Often, leaders collude in their gunnysacking. Recent government examples are the “cost-saving” adventures of Guilford County Commissioners Melvin “Skip” Alston and Steve Arnold and attempts by some Greensboro City Council members to form a coalition to “get” City Manager Mitch Johnson.

Gunnysacking is unhealthy for both the leaders who practice it and for the prognosis of organizational survival. If you see it happening, help those wielding those heavy bags find better ways to lighten them. If, in the heat of the battle for organizational survival, you are tempted to form a coalition to “get” a person or a function for the wrong reasons, resist it.

If you find yourself the victim of gunnysacking, don’t try to get even; that only compounds the problem. Try to discover what past event lies unresolved in the leader’s bag and muster the courage to directly confront the issue.

The Cost-Cutting Activity Trap

An activity trap involves becoming so enmeshed in a task that one loses sight of more important, fundamental objectives. Leadership gurus such as Peter Drucker have long warned of the hazards of getting caught in activity traps.

However, in times of economic chaos, many action-oriented leaders, uncomfortable with omplexity and ambiguity, are driven to do something personal, immediate and tangible. They become heavily involved, often obsessed, with line-item budget cuts and the layoff process.

At the very time when their perspective, wisdom and creativity are needed to help the organization survive, they succumb to the seduction of micro-management. In today’s environment, cost-cutting and layoffs are sobering and necessary realities, but that’s not how true leaders spend their time. We need leaders to give us hope, inspire us and, difficult though it may be, navigate a strategic course that will ensure organizational productivity and survival.

The This-Is-What-Got-Me-Here Trap

Leading organizational growth is much easier and requires a different set of skills than leading organizational decline. Most definitions of management include the classic “ings”: “directing” “organizing” “evaluating” and “controlling.” And most leaders of public and private organizations got where they are by excelling in these “ings.”

However, in many years of working with organizations going through downsizing, I have yet to hear employees describe their best boss as one who excelled at directing, evaluating or controlling.

During troubled times, the best bosses are seen as those who are good listeners and straight communicators, and who have the ability to form empathetic relationships. Helping skills, not controlling or evaluating skills, are the leadership currency of the realm during troubled times.

That doesn’t mean that leaders are absolved of the responsibility to make hard decisions or can magically alleviate the pain of organizational restructuring. It does mean that, in order to revitalize organizations, it is necessary to re-recruit demoralized employees, and that is not accomplished through excessive control, evaluation or direction. It is done through the leadership “ings” of listening, empowering and coaching.

Leadership is not necessarily a hierarchical phenomenon. One does not need to be formally anointed as “boss” to exercise leadership in an organization. Families in Greensboro and our region are making uncomfortable lifestyle adjustments and belt-tightening. Political leadership in a time of reduced tax revenues and increased expenses is everyone’s business. We all need to work to avoid becoming ensnared in these leadership traps and help our families, communities and organizations rebound.

David Noer (dnoer@elon.edu) is the Frank S. Holt Jr. Professor of Business Leadership at Elon University and an honorary senior fellow at Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership. He writes a monthly column for the News & Record on leadership, organizational behavior and community issues.