Absentee leadership is a clear and present workplace danger

Earlier in my career, I had a boss whose only feedback was “You’re doing a great job.”

Despite multiple attempts to connect with him and get regular feedback about my performance, what I got were empty accolades. The problem was that both of us knew this just wasn’t true – the company was lacking serious direction, turnover was high, and sales were at an all-time low. I was trying hard at this company but needed more support and critical feedback than what my boss would routinely give me. I was not doing a great job, and we both knew it. I needed a boss who would give me advice and direction, not douse me with vacant platitudes.

Robert Hogan, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University, has studied what he terms the dark side of leadership or the characteristics that define bad managers. They fall into three categories. One comprises “moving-away behaviours” that create distance within team members through hyperemotionality, waning communication and general skepticism that serve to erode trust. Another category describes “moving-against behaviours” that overpower and manipulate people to serve the manager’s ego, while a third, “moving-toward behaviours,” includes being overly conforming and reluctant to change or to stand up for one’s team.

Our professional lives are full of examples of the three types of bad behaviours. However, what I experienced with my former boss was worse than the bad behaviours included in this list. My ex-boss was a leader in title only and demonstrated what I call “no-movement-at-all behaviour.” On paper, his role was one of authority and influence. But his actions proved to be anything but. What I experienced was absentee leadership – something that is rarely discussed in the literature but is one of the most common forms of leadership out there.

Absentee leaders are those who hold the titles and privilege of leaders but avoid the meaningful interactions and coach-oriented mentalities needed to help their teams and organizations thrive. In theory, these types of bosses sound great – they let their team members do what they please with little obstruction. However, a 2015 Interact/Harris poll of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about their bosses circled around absentee behaviours – in particular, what their bosses didn’t do.

Research from the department of psychosocial science at the University of Bergen in Norway has shown that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly. Indeed, the effects of absentee leadership on job satisfaction outlast the effects of constructive leadership and the impact of an overtly contentious managerial style. The former immediately improves job satisfaction but dissipates quickly. The latter decreases job satisfaction but, if done sporadically, dissipates after an average of six months, according to the study.

Absentee leadership, however, has profound lingering effects on a team member’s overall job satisfaction, lasting over two years. Absentee leadership is also related to many other negative outcomes for team members, including role ambiguity, stifled innovation and an allowance for bullying by other team members. This, in turn, leads to poor health outcomes, talent drain and a lower bottom line.

If absentee leadership is so harmful, why don’t we hear more about it? Consider an example I recently heard from a friend, and her experience at work. Two senior, well-respected executives called on their CEO, because a fellow vice-president simply wouldn’t do anything. The CEO responded stating that of all the issues she had on her plate, an absentee vice-president was just not one. Another VP had recently been accused of sexual harassment, while the head of another department was being investigated for misuse of funds.

This isn’t an isolated situation. Many organizations don’t confront absentee leaders because other behaviours are just more overtly destructive. But make no mistake. Just because absentee leaders don’t actively make problems for their organization, their passivity can be equally detrimental. Left unchecked, absentee leaders can inflict damage in innumerable ways, from clogging an organization’s succession arteries by blocking more effective people from moving into important roles, to creating a general feeling of malaise among employees, to sending the implicit message that the organization doesn’t really care about productivity.

In a world where the war for talent is real, organizations with the best leaders will win. Reviewing your organization’s management positions for absentee leaders may be just the competitive advantage your company needs. It’s likely that your competitors are overlooking this issue or choosing not to do anything about it, like my friend’s CEO. At the end of the day, doing nothing about absentee leaders is easy. Simply ask any absentee leader. 

Casey Miller (casey@sixandahalfconsulting.com), president of Six and a Half Consulting, is a leadership and team development specialist. His consultancy teaches organizations the skills needed to create motivated and inspired workplaces.