When the Boss is Away…

Do the mice play when the cat’s away?

We all know the saying, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” We might even have been a scurrying mouse once or twice.

A friend once confided that her first week in a new job was going well… until all the managers went away on a 2-day retreat. All of a sudden, with the bosses absent, some of her co-workers took this as the opportunity to complain to – and about – each other. Productivity took a dive, rules were flouted, targets disregarded, and disorder became the order of the day.  My friend was disappointed, to say the least. Her enthusiasm for her new job evaporated and her respect for her co-workers plummeted.

In a story published by CNN, Rachel Zupek tells us of some more real-life scenarios of “when the cat’s away”, ranging from scrolling through social media, or working on a side gig, to playing laser tag on the roof, baseball in the stockroom, and a creative take on ten-pin bowling using soda bottles and frozen turkeys. It’s an entertaining read for sure, but cringeworthy at the same time.

Sure, the reason may be due to several factors – the length of the manager’s absence, the organizational culture of the organization, who is left in charge, the character of employees. But undoubtedly, where these things happen, it can reveal a work culture devoid of accountability and trust, underlaid with disrespect and disregard, offering at best a mild tokenism to the chain of responsibility.

At its worst, when employees are already feeling alienated, the absence of the boss creates a chance to ‘get back’ at the company or the boss for some perceived wrong or injustice.

Not all responses are helpful

Companies are well aware of the very heavy cost of the mice playing when the boss is away. However their strategies to prevent or reduce it have not always been successful. Often we see strategies intended to protect the bottom line and company culture, with stringent rules, cameras, timesheets, and surprise check-ins. And in these days where remote working has become so much more prevalent, there are all kinds of tech tools being used to monitor, track and log remote employees’ activities.

But all too often, where there’s already clearly a problem, these strategies only serve to further alienate employees. The problem is not solved – at best it’s a band-aid solution. So, what makes for a better approach? Here are three key elements.

#1 Hiring the right people

Your employees are your biggest asset and stand to make or break your business. When companies are proactive about this cat and mouse problem, they start by being very intentional in their hiring strategy. Companies that find mice playing less of a problem are those that seek to hire employees who are driven and trainable in respect to the mission, vision and values of the company and who will seek to secure the best interest of the company under normal circumstances. When hiring new employees, the ethos of the company should be communicated, understood, respected and preserved through policy and culture.

#2 Creating a culture of trust and accountability

Bosses need to be equipped with effective team-building skills, together with a strong understanding of what motivates employees. Where employees see themselves as an integral part of the team, they will be less inclined to be disruptive or generally counterproductive.

In my experience as a people manager,  there is no substitute for genuinely knowing your team members – this includes regular one-on-one meetings and is most effective when an organized and consistent approach is used  to cover all the bases. In my coaching practice, I’ve developed a 6-part approach that managers can use to ensure they maximize their effectiveness in engaging and motivating staff.

#3 Managing Employee Needs

Companies that have developed a culture of managing grievances and staff issues in a fair manner will find that it reduces the potential for employees to want to descend into feelings of poor treatment, unfair decisions and the notion of us against them. When employees see transparency in the management of conflict and appreciate the integrity in handling differences, there is less likelihood of sliding into the airing of grouses among colleagues in the absence of the boss.

Of course, no company is worth its salt if it is not equally willing to deal with unruly employees who demoralize their colleagues, waste time, create discontent and disregard the company ethos. To leave such an individual in the workplace without addressing this deficiency would put the entire organization at risk. Action needs to be taken – this sends the message to the conscientious and hard-working majority of the staff, that their efforts are respected and valued.

Seeing the Company in Real-Time 

Now, let’s talk about opportunities. When the boss is away, the company gets a great opportunity to garner insight into the quality of its staff and operations. Are the tools and resources that are available being used? What do employees really do when the boss isn’t there to make a decision? What is the general attitude of the staff? Which employees step up to lead? What kind of initiative is shown? What’s the work attitude like when no one is looking?

This cat and mice game is not new. But more often than not, intentionality and accountability reduce the chances of unprofessional behaviour. Hiring the right people will ensure you do not have to keep close tabs to see if employees are actually working. Knowing your team members and what makes each person tick is a major piece of the puzzle. And, if the systems of accountability are in place to safeguard all the stakeholders, then the absence of the boss may even be an unnoticed and uninteresting event.

And if you’re the manager, you won’t find yourself saying “You did what??” – because your staff are accountable and trustworthy.

Cathy Ginsberg

Looking for ideas to better engage your team? Interested in knowing more about 6-part framework for engaging and motivating staff? I’d be happy to talk. Book a call with me here.