Absentee Leadership: The Worst Kind of Manager | TechWell

Absentee Leadership: The Worst Kind of Manager

Employee frustrated by her absentee leader

When I first heard the term “absentee leadership,” I assumed it meant managers who work remotely from their team. Wrong! It means managers who are physically present but psychologically absent.

These managers are incompetent and disengaged. To the extent that they support their teams at all, they do so inadequately or inappropriately. Communication is not their strong suit.

This description reminded me of a manager I once had. Barry was a nice, likable guy, but a classic avoider, providing no sense of direction or feedback. Plus, he was adamantly averse to doing anything differently from exactly the way things had always been done. 

Barry’s behavior is typical of absentee leadership. Absentee leaders avoid meeting with employees, ignore employee achievements (which nevertheless occur despite the absence of direction), and rarely offer constructive feedback. Such feedback they do give tends to be across-the-board praise (“You all did great!”), which is both useless and frustrating. 

Some sources consider absentee leaders to be even worse than managers who are bullies, blamers, and narcissists. Unfortunately, once in place, absentee leaders tend to stay there, because they’re not overtly misbehaving.

If you have an absentee manager (and don’t have the luxury of seeking another position), try to maintain an open line of communication, even if it’s relentlessly one-sided. Provide regular updates on your projects and activities so your boss can’t claim to not know what and how you’re doing. Try to schedule recurring one-on-one meetings, and use those meetings to explicitly state what’s going well and what needs attention. 

You might also try taking more responsibility. If your manager won’t give you the go-ahead to tackle certain tasks, take a chance and do them anyway, being sure to let your manager know what you’re doing. This is the “easier to ask forgiveness than permission” approach without the risk, and it can help you develop new skills.

On occasion, consider going around the manager. I did this once with Barry. I had an idea for a project that Barry would have quickly rejected. So I wrote up a proposal, emailed it to Barry, and put a printout of it front and center on the desk of his manager, Tom, while Tom was at a meeting.

It worked! Tom saw the proposal before Barry did and liked the idea. Assuming Barry had already seen it, Tom told Barry to proceed with the project. Barry had no choice but to give me the go-ahead. 

Deviousness is not the best way to deal with an absentee manager. But on occasion, it’s the only way.

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