Absentee leadership

The most destructive form of leadership is the one that’s barely detected. That’s because these leaders specialize in flying under the radar by not pursuing anything that catches anyone’s attention. In other words, they just freaking don’t do anything.

If you’ve ever been concerned about the things that your bosses didn’t do… you probably have an absentee leader on board. They won’t criticize, they won’t complain, they won’t give you feedback let alone feedforward. Nothing! All they want to do is to hold on to the position and don’t meddle with what’s already going on.

If you ask them for advice, you’ll get a “you’re doing a great job, Steve” or “you’re doing just fine, Steve” response. And the worst advice of all — “you’re doing a great job!” — when you clearly know you didn’t.

Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics — taking value out of an organization without putting value in. As such, they represent a special case of laissez-faire leadership, but one that is distinguished by its destructiveness.

The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader (https://hbr.org)

It’s a grave issue because unlike the other forms of leadership — coercive, pacesetter, coaching, democratic, affiliate and authoritative — it’s hard to pin down the consequences of an absentee-style of leadership. And even if you are able to, the details pale in comparison to the rampage caused by the typical “destructive” leaders. Thus brushed away by decision makers.

And here’s why we should care:

The impact of absentee leadership on job satisfaction outlasts the impact of both constructive and overtly destructive forms of leadership. Constructive leadership immediately improves job satisfaction, but the effects dwindle quickly. Destructive leadership immediately degrades job satisfaction, but the effects dissipate after about six months. In contrast, the impact of absentee leadership takes longer to appear, but it degrades subordinates’ job satisfaction for at least two years. It also is related to a number of other negative outcomes for employees, like role ambiguityhealth complaints, and increased bullying from team members. Absentee leadership creates employee stress, which can lead to poor employee health outcomes and talent drain, which then impact an organization’s bottom line.

The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader (https://hbr.org)

If you’re wondering what can be done, the answer’s quite straightforward. There are two specific things you should consider:

  1. Do something. Perhaps documenting instances can be a good start. Radical candor is a good approach and will probably set expectations (which you should document) between you and the absentee leader. Worse case scenario — this person just may jump into action. Which is what you wanted in the first place. And since you’ve got documents in place (and let’s not forget — skin in the game) you’re at a far better place than you would otherwise be. Does it work? Not all the time but the ones who complain about the risks involved are almost always the ones who don’t take the next step. Which brings me to the next point…
  2. Do nothing. Follow your role model. You can deny as much you like but you’re the perfect match for the absentee leader. An absentee follower.

Essentially, it boils down to the choices you make. Broadly speaking, that’s where the organizational values come into play. If what you think is in alignment with the bigger picture, you wouldn’t be worried about the whole situation in the first place.

And if not in alignment, perhaps it’s time for you to come out of your absentee follower status.