Make Sure Work Gets Done When the Boss is Away

“I sit down in a meeting and my phone goes nuts. I can’t even take a vacation!”

This very frustrated comment was made to me by a manager about his team. Whenever he’s in a meeting or away from the office at a client site, no work gets done. His team is constantly calling him to make decisions or help them solve problems.

“I don’t get it. The solution is obvious!”

This was a completely different manager at a completely different company. Same basic problem though: when he wasn’t there, nothing got done. He was frustrated; his team was frustrated. They were all loyal, all eager to please, but they also wouldn’t do anything if he wasn’t there.

Indeed, teams that don’t work when the manager isn’t around are legion. It’s a common problem, and common wisdom suggests that the team members lack motivation or are trying to goof off: when the cat’s away, and all that.

Common wisdom may sound good, but is often wrong. This is no exception.

When apparently enthusiastic teams are unable to get any work done when the boss is away, there are really three common causes:

  1. The goals are unclear.
  2. The group can’t make decisions without the boss.
  3. The group is either unable or unwilling solve the problems that come up.

While the first two are important, the third is critical: if the team doesn’t think it can do the job, or isn’t willing to try, then it doesn’t matter how skillful they are at decision making and it doesn’t matter how clear the goals are. It’ll merely be that much clearer to them that they cannot do it.

In each of the cases mentioned above, and countless others, the situation was the same: a highly skilled, knowledgeable manager, a competent team, working under a tight deadline and the perception that there was no time for mistakes.

Perception can be dangerous: in this case, that perception that mistakes had to be avoided caused more delay than the mistakes would have!

In each situation, when the team ran into a difficult problem, they’d call their manager. He’d run into the room, quickly size up the situation, and tell them what to do. It usually worked; if it didn’t, they’d call him in again and the process would repeat.

Given the tight deadlines and how busy the manager was, this always seemed to be the best thing to do: solve the problem, move on. Unfortunately, it meant that the team never had to learn to solve the problems for themselves. Even worse, they were being given the very unmistakable message that they couldn’t be trusted to make the attempt lest they make a mistake.

In each case, the solution was easy, although the implementation was not: the manager had to slow down and work through the problem-solving process with their team. Rather than solving the problems, they had to let the team see their process for problem solving, and understand their criteria for success.

Then, came the really hard part. Each manager had to step back and let the teams move forward on their own. Yes, the manager could help, but they also had to resist the urge to solve the problems. They had to accept that the teams would make mistakes.

This did not always go smoothly. It is not easy to tolerate mistakes, especially when the right answer is obvious to you. However, if the teams were not allowed to make mistakes, and then recover from those mistakes, the team couldn’t develop either the confidence or the ability to solve problems on their own.

Some managers couldn’t accept this. They couldn’t tolerate the inevitable mistakes or they couldn’t stop themselves from solving the problems. Others went the other direction: they were too quick to pull away, refusing to help at all. A couple firmly believed that they were making themselves irrelevant, and refused to move forward.

Most, however, were able to make the transition. Many needed some coaching: an outside perspective is very helpful. For those who were successful, they found that their teams became far more skilled and motivated than they had ever dreamed could happen. Instead of spending their time running around solving problems for the team, those successful managers were able to take a more strategic focus, further increasing team productivity. Several were subsequently promoted into more senior roles in their organizations.

In the end, teams don’t learn to operate when the boss is away by watching the boss solve every problem. It’s learning what to do, practicing, and recovering from the inevitable mistakes along the way that transform a dependent, low-performance team into an independent, high-performance team that gets things done when the boss is away.

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Balzac’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer this year. For more information, visit You can also contact him at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.