Thrown any dead cats lately?

If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny in a sick kind of way. I’ve been wrangling with the local post office for two months over a book. I have no doubt the book was delivered somewhere; it just wasn’t delivered to me.

In my first chat with the local pooh bah, Mrs. W. promised to immediately check into the matter and call me the following day. Of course, she didn’t call. When I called her a week later, she was shocked to learn that no one in her department had contacted me with an answer. She’s been similarly shocked three more times.

In a past life, we called what Mrs. W. is doing as “throwing the dead cat over the wall.” (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt, taking her word that she did pass along the assignment, and offering apologies to cat lovers everywhere.) Our company had recently gone through an acquisition, and our new regional leader was from the acquiring organization. He issued work directives and new projects with numbing regularity.

The trick became figuring out which demand was the dead cat (the one he would never ask about again) or the live one (where he would call you 39 minutes after making the assignment to see if it was completed). Having a boss who passed along assignments and never, ever followed up on them was a new experience. One that was unpleasant, confusing, deadly to credibility (his and the new organization) and incredible fodder for gamesmanship.

The quality of his instructions wasn’t in question. (If you’re looking for some helpful tips on how to give effective directives, Wally Bock offers some insights here.) What was lacking was thoughtful analysis regarding the need for the work in the first place and follow-up…not the hovering helicopter style but rather the meaningful close-the-loop informal check-in where it’s confirmed that all is well or in which help is offered.

We were trying to make sense of a new organizational culture and were grabbing at any clues offered. We wanted to give our new boss some leeway, recognizing we all get busy and sometimes forget to follow-up. Yet as we got to know his style better, it become clear his behaviors weren’t rooted in forgetfulness or being too busy or even being over-whelmed. Unfortunately, “dead cats” became an underground metaphor for a boss whose leadership lacked clarity, communication and character. And the bummer part is that he wasn’t self-aware enough to grasp his behaviors or open enough to accept our feedback that we weren’t sure which assignments took priority.

What got us through this uncertain period was our connection to each other. Since the boss wouldn’t provide clarity, we bounced our “cats” off one another, seeking insights that someone on the team might have about a new initiative, strategy, etc., that would indicate if the “cat” was one we needed to run with. This was the plus side of our new experience…bonding, sharing and helping one another through the dark days of not knowing.

Have you ever been in a similar circumstance? How did you manage through it?

Photo credit: Philosophies of Men





2 Responses to Thrown any dead cats lately?

  1. Jane,
    really very recognizable. As a trainer leadership I really encounter this kind of behaviour a lot. My partner told me a same story about her CEO. She was the HR director of an American Company in Belgium and she was always in shock of the lack of follow-up. She partnered very well with the CEO, happily enough and could see to it that in many cases the follow-up went through of things that were discussed about in the committee of directors. She was the one that put things back on table. The other directors valued her for that, even though that sometimes that meant that they were on the hook. Even though that putting it on the table and following it up is a common behaviour for the personality style of my partner, she burned up after 4 years and went of to look for more professional horizons. After her leaving the company she got a lot of credit of all the directors, her team and of people all over the organisation.
    This feedback of all those people is a very “hard” evidence that follow-up is not only necessary but it is very high valued by the people in an organisation!

    • Eric — sounds like your partner handled a really tough situation with lots of grace and intelligence. Thanks for sharing a thoughtful story that illustrates that follow-up and emotional intelligence create positive outcomes for all.

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