Magazine

When the Boss Goes on Vacation


It's summertime, and that means the corner office will probably be unoccupied for a week or two. What happens when the boss goes on vacation? That may depend on what happens before he or she leaves.

Work dynamics can change drastically when a team leader takes off. For a few employees, an authority figure's absence signals a holiday—a chance to suspend the rules and expectations. These temporary slackers tend to come in two varieties. Type I: those who are so focused on basking in the boss's approval that their self-esteem slumps (along with their productivity) in the absence of that watchful eye. Type II: the arrested-development crew—employees still channeling their school days, who can't wait to skip out early or defy the "substitute teacher."

Others can move to the opposite extreme, out of anxiety or arrogance. There's nothing worse than a second-in- command who acts like the big shot he always wanted to be when standing in for the boss—vetoing ideas left and right and exercising power for the pleasure of it.

Once these dynamics are operating—with self-importance spawning small mutinies—it may be hard to steer the team back in the right direction. The trick is prevention, and that falls to the boss, before the vacation even starts. If that's you, try to have a preemptive pep talk with your stand-in to lay out what you'd like accomplished in your absence. Be sure to express confidence in his or her judgment and competence. But be clear, even if you transmit it casually, that you're leaving the operation in steady hands, not relinquishing your authority.

To cement the message that you'll still be involved, you might want to reassure the whole team—in an e-mail, perhaps—that in the event of an emergency or if a crucial decision must be made, you can be reached.

I know, that means giving out your phone number at the beach or keeping your BlackBerry turned on (something I advise my CEO clients to do on vacation, anyway, because it makes them less anxious). But if you've prepared your crew, the call may never come.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises CEOs on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at analyzethis@businessweek.com

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