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Yes, You Can Still Get Stuff Done With A Hands-Off Boss

There’s likely one of two reasons why your boss is keeping their distance. Here’s what to do in both situations.

Yes, You Can Still Get Stuff Done With A Hands-Off Boss
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

When your boss isn’t that involved in your day-to-day work you might feel like you’re on your own–for better or worse. Sometimes having a hands-off boss means the freedom to do things your way. Other times it’s just lonely and nerve-wracking. But either way, your challenge is the same: How can you still be effective, productive, and successful when your supervisor isn’t weighing in very much–or at all–on your work?

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The answer to that depends largely on the reason your boss might prefer to stay at a distance: They’re either checked out at work in general, or they totally trust you. Here’s how to handle both scenarios.


Related: How These Remote Workers Convinced Their Bosses They Can Work From Anywhere


When Your Boss Is Checked Out

You’ll know you’re dealing with a manager whose absenteeism isn’t due to their boundless confidence in your abilities when:

  • they don’t follow up on areas you’re concerned about
  • they don’t recognize your achievements–either through their own congratulations or sharing your wins with your team
  • they blow off one-on-one meetings and are generally hard to get ahold of
  • they don’t know what you’re working on

If this describes your boss, here are a few things you can do:

Be proactive about following up. No, you aren’t being pushy. Make sure you keep your boss informed of your challenges, even when they don’t ask you to. And don’t be afraid to be explicit or prescriptive in asking for help. For instance, ask, “Have you thought about what we talked about last time? I’m still struggling with X. How would you approach this?”

You should especially make sure to follow up if your boss has over-promised and under-delivered. Try asking: “Any progress on what we talked about last time? You mentioned you could help with X. Is there an update you can share?” Be polite, but persistent.

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Show that one-on-ones matter. Make it clear that being able to check in face-to-face is really important to you, and ask for feedback on how those meetings could be made more valuable to both of you. If your manager is regularly blowing off one-on-ones and seems generally unavailable to support you, have an honest conversation about it: Is there something you could be doing to help them invest more in your work? Do they feel you’re unprepared for these catch-ups? Do they feel inept in your domain of expertise? Do they think you prefer more autonomy than you actually do?

Set aside some time to revisit both of your working styles and regular meetings on both of your calendars, then assess together how to make the best use of that time. Don’t be afraid to explain to your manager what you’ve observed versus what you really need.

Widen their window onto your work. Copy your checked-out boss on emails that highlight your projects and interactions with others–just be selective. Regularly point out your achievements during one-on-ones, by email, or in whatever format they prefer to digest information. (If you’re not sure, ask!) The bottom line is just to reinforce the work you’re doing as much as possible. You’ll know you’re breaking through when your manager starts to reference the details of your projects back to you.


Related: How To Give Constructive Feedback To Your Boss Without Getting Fired


When Your Boss Trusts You

If, on the other hand, you have a boss who trusts you to the point of being unhelpful, you may need a different approach. You’ll know that the reason your boss is so hands-off is because they think you’ve got it all covered on your own when:

  • they encourage you to pursue the ideas you’ve put forward
  • they take your side of the story seriously
  • they always agree with your instincts and never push back

Sounds good, right? Except that it’s healthy to get some pushback and challenge your thinking now and then. Otherwise you might not be as successful as you could be. Here’s what to do in this case:

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Say thanks–but share when you want more input. It’s clear your manager trusts you and is rewarding you with autonomy–and that’s great. But be honest with your manager about when it’s helpful to get more active input from them and when you’d actually like to just roll with an idea on your own.

Acknowledge that you feel empowered to make decisions and run with ideas autonomously, thanks to their support. But don’t be afraid to spell out scenarios where their perspective might be helpful and productive for you.

Check in on their goals, and find out how can you help. Is there an opportunity to work on something more hands-on with your manager? Think about how your work ties back to their own objectives, and draw that connection for them if they don’t see it. You may find that the more both of your projects line up, the more your relationship can become a partnership, rather than two people working simultaneously on completely different things.

Ask for feedback. If your manager continually lets you run the show, pause every now and then to ask how they think it’s going. You may even have to push a boss who trusts you a lot to give you actionable feedback, rather than just praise. Try asking, “For the last project we talked about, I decided to take X approach. I have some thoughts on the outcome but would love to hear yours, too. How did you think that went? Is there anything I should consider or change next time?” Zero in on the specific areas you’d like your manager’s thinking on, and don’t hesitate to steer them there.

Whatever you do, just remember that–like it or not–your success still depends on your relationship with your manager. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Think of having a hands-off boss as just an open invitation to ask for more help when you need it. But if you find after you still aren’t seeing any changes taking these steps, it may be time to start seeking new opportunities–within your current company or outside it.

About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and the Huffington Post. She currently works at Pinterest as a qualitative researcher.

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