This is the third in my series on workplace myths – those pervasive beliefs that contain a grain of truth but may not be as applicable as you think. Some of you may be wondering why I’m considering this one as a myth at all. If you’ve suffered the horrors of a control freak micro-manager, you may long to be left alone to get on with the job. But for how long? When does that absence of management become a problem?
Research from a recent conference suggests that, eventually, Absent Leadership really gets people down. Absent leadership is where someone occupies a leadership role but doesn’t carry out the responsibilities. Incidentally, I’m now going to use the terms leader and manager interchangeably, which I suspect will infuriate some people. If it’s bothering you, substitute the word ‘boss’.
So what’s the problem with an absent leader?
Impact on the individual
In a survey asking what makes a leader ineffective, people complained about lack of praise, lack of constructive feedback, managers not making time for them, not getting to know them as people. Only one of the complaints was actively bad – taking credit for their work. All the others were about an absence of management activity. Sure there’s a balance to be struck between interference and autonomy. If you’re in doubt about how to strike that balance, have a look at this article on the dimensions of delegation. But management neglect is not going to be the answer.
Impact on the team/department
Management/leadership is not just about overseeing the work of individual staff members. It’s also about creating something greater than the sum of the parts. When a leader is absent, there’s a lack of co-ordination, important decisions get delayed, people don’t understand what direction they’re going in. It leaves a vacuum where political game playing thrives and conflict increases.
Impact on job satisfaction
A fascinating piece of research looked at the impact on people’s job satisfaction of different types of leadership. If you start working for a great boss, it has an immediate positive impact on your job satisfaction but after six months you take it for granted. Your job satisfaction after that is unrelated to your boss.
Start working for a tyrant and, unsurprisingly, it has an immediate negative impact on your job satisfaction, which is still there six months later. After two years, however, you get used to it (or leave). If you start working for an absent leader, on the other hand, it has no impact at all on your job satisfaction at first. After six months it starts to get to you and two years later it’s still having a negative effect. So this form of leadership is not benign neglect – it’s really harmful.
Why do people become absent leaders?
There may be personality characteristics that predispose people to absent leadership. People who are strongly introverted and highly cautious, for example, may avoid difficult decisions and neglect the relationship building aspects of leadership. But often these are not the people who make it to leadership positions.
The most common type of absent leader I encounter is the individual contributor – the salesperson, lawyer, academic, engineer, accountant who’s promoted because of their specialist skills but doesn’t really want leadership responsibility. Their own work is more interesting, so that’s where they put most of their energy and attention. As I mentioned in the article on technical specialists as leaders, it’s really important to check that people going for leadership positions understand what’s required and actually want to do it.
There’s a lot of it about
Research seems to suggest that absent leadership is the most prevalent form of dysfunctional leadership. One of the reasons for this is that absent leaders cause no problems upwards. Organisations are more likely to deal with actively dysfunctional leaders as the problems are more visible and more likely to land them in an industrial tribunal. Absent leaders, on the other hand, may cause misery for years but be quietly ignored. In some cases, they may be highly valued by the organisation as individual contributors, e.g. some partners in professional services firms who bring in huge fees and add prestige to the firm, while neglecting those they are supposed to manage.
It’s really important for organisations to be clear about what they expect from their senior people and promote staff who have both the aptitude and the appetite to take on those responsibilities. If you’d like to talk through the implications of that for your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: firstname.lastname@example.org