Thursday, October 23, 2008

Playful Mice Syndrome

"Whilst the cat's away the mice will play"

This fascinates me. Even as adults we never loose that sense of freedom once our superiors turn their arching backs. Why is that? No doubt there will be a psychological link back to childhood, recalling deep-seeded memories of when teacher would leave the classroom and all objects not screwed down would levitate at speed towards various unprotected heads; or when Mum or Dad weren't watching as you stole a few extra biscuits from the tin or pushed your kid brother in to a patch of nettles... just for fun.

I've grown paranoid of taking holidays or working away from the office due to this childish(?) behavior. It seems that all personal agendas rise to the surface once the boss's back is turned. All inhibitions are lost as if the water cooler magically turned in to a large bottle of vodka and 9-5 turned in to happy hour down at your local.

I know I am not immune to this syndrome, yet since taking on the persona of a cat, with cat-like responsibilities, when the cats disappear, I still remain a cat. It is as if the job of the remaining cats is to increase their cat-like-catness. Defending their clowder and yet still enjoying that increased sense of autonomy.

What I am learning through being the cat, and away, is just how the mice play. Playful might be the intention, especially if caught, but the final result can be downright harmful. In my recent experience, I believe I may have identified the following mouse like playing traits:

Trophy Mouse
This mouse is out for one thing and one thing only. To get a piece of the cat. Preferably a head. Stuffed and mounted. Waiting for the cat to be as distant as necessary so not to be hit by any ricocheted shrapnel. The Trophy Mouse waits for his/her opportunity, takes aim and fires. Whether scatter fire or carefully planned sniper fire, shots can almost appear harmless and yet over time they accumulate and fester, slowly eroding the confidence of other mice in the good nature of the cat.

Whilst there is nothing to really gain from the kill... 'it's the taking part that counts'.

Wannabe Mouse
This mouse can be found everywhere. They are relentless and do not tire of their pursuit. They have one thing on their mind, and one thing only... to be the cat.

It doesn't seem to phase the Wannabe Mouse that they are a mouse, and with their Wannabe Mouse behavior, becoming anything more than a mouse becomes very unlikely. This mouse will continue to seek out a cat like status no matter what realities stand in their way. The quality that is least admirable of this trait of mouse is that they love to take charge of situations, whether the cat is about or not, and when situations do not exist - especially when the cat is away - they'll create one.

Ventriloquist Mouse
Can you see my lips moving? Well of course not, as the cat, I am away. And yet this mouse is able to achieve any personal goal imaginable by throwing the cat's voice. This trick is amazing and would work well if the cat hadn't already said differently before leaving. The Ventriloquist Mouse, whilst entertaining, does end up having to do a lot of lip moving when challenged on the cat's return.

Teflon Mouse
Surprisingly, this mouse is able to shirk any responsibility that comes its way. They really shine in meetings where nothing will stick to them. All decisions, responsibilities and actions will move to the currently unavailable cat (or mouse if necessary). Be prepared for this mouse to always have a good excuse.

Schizo Mouse
Should the cat check in, the mouse will play dead and yet as soon as the cat has gone again, they are right their in the thick of it again. This mouse feeds off any negativity and enjoys every minute to 'stick it to the cat'.

Build a better mouse-catcher
Much like quantum physics - once you observe it, you change the outcome. The mouse has the means to alter the perception when confronted. A misunderstanding. The thing is, you can't change these traits as a cat. Worse still, as a cat you cannot observe these traits directly. So the question is - how do you know that they exist?

Mice at play do fortunately leave a trail. Once a mouse thinks they have succeeded in pulling off a 'play', the mouse has to up the stakes. As if a mouse has managed to steal just a little cheese, the thought of a little more... a little bigger piece... is all too alluring. The easier the 'play' becomes the less thrill a mouse has from achieving it. Soon the mouse, boring of the ease, becomes a little lose tonged. What is fascinating, is that they don't lose their tongue over their own plays, but over the plays of others.

To catch a mouse, you need not set a trap, you need only provide the fodder for these traits to reveal themselves. The challenge then becomes: What do you do once you know which mouse has what traits?

From my point of view - talking about it seems to help. Not by confronting the individual mouse about their individual misdeeds, but talking to the mouse about the whole event and asking how they approached it. It is unlikely that they are going to own up, but by the vary nature that you are discussing the event in a new frame of thought, you actually change the outcome. Almost as if you were able to time-travel and prevent the misdeed from happening in the first place.

This is all well and good for those mice within your next (team) but unfortunately doesn't begin to repair any damages made to those you have no influence over. For this, you have to rely on the guilt of the mouse to rectify. This may not happen immediately, however every time the opportunity presents itself, the mouse will eventually realize that their actions are somehow observable and re-frame their own thinking before attempting to 'play'.

Time poor cats
Not all cats will have the affordance of time to wait for this to take place. Unfortunately if faced with this, I think disciplinary procedures need to take precedence. Negative discourse on a team can be phenomenally unsettling, costing many man hours in unnecessary debate that could have been spent being productive. Removing an overly playful mouse is never a bad thing. It may not require an all out removal of the mouse from the organisation, but finding them a better vocation where their objectives are more easily achieved, impacting less people and delivering the most benefit to the business.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poor morale is like a cancer

It has been a long, long time since I wrote something about morale in the workplace. For one thing, I made the switch from an environment that promoted me to be vocal about the subject, and for another, I am now in a position of crafting that morale for my own team.

I have come back to this space not because I have stumbled across the magic silver bullet to workplace morale, but to again go back to where morale was a problem. Whilst I have moved on, the team I left behind appears to continue to feel the wrath of poor morale. Colleague after colleague has either left or been told to leave. Recently under a wave of 50 completely unnecessary redundancies sold under the practice of 'future-proofing'.

What I have noted from my conversations is that when poor morale finds a crevice to breed, it festers, grows and consumes all others. It has such a grip that it begins to cross teams, departments... entire infrastructures. Rather than looking for the source of the problem that lies in the few, the many have taken the sacrifice. Those that left of their own accord did so with a sense of abandonment. Those that stuck it out and were not afraid to point out where the problem lay were eventually culled. I fear now for those that remain. Are they happy? More so: are their jobs safe?

In my new workplace, I have been given the responsibility of nurturing 10 like-minded individuals in a field I am most passionate about. Whilst the environment is not essentially the best to breed great morale for our chosen profession, I hope I have made good use of the opportunity I have been given to enthuse and keep those I mentor happy and motivated. Feedback from my team suggests that I have done this and their long service hopefully continues to offer confirmation. It is because of this I wonder about my former workplace.

During my time holding this responsibility I have of course met with challenges. One such challenge caused such distress to the team that the full effect was only realized once the troublesome individual had left the team. The extent of their effect on the team made it seem impossible to enthuse anyone about their chosen careers or employer. This single person had such a hold over seemingly few individuals that they were close to destroying not only the team, but the person that was put in place to achieve the exact opposite - me.

It would not be too insensitive to compare the similarities of this one person's effect on the team to that of a cancer. The strain was so hard on the team, that it drained all happiness and enthusiasm from those that were closest in contact. Once the cancer had been cut away, life returned and in abundance.

This particular cancer was contained. Contained within a small team. Isolated. The impact whilst harmful, was manageable. Treatment was swift and the recovery was quick.

My question: If a single individual with no authority to establish their effect on a group wider than their immediate colleagues can bring a team to its knees, what does that mean for a manager with greater influence? At my old workplace, are good cells being sacrificed for the benefit of the bad? Does the virus lie within the people it has now infected, or within the managers that have allowed it to spread?