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How to deal with a manager who doesn’t manage

If you’re used to a micromanaging boss, it might seem like a dream to have a boss that leaves you alone. But too much of that can also be a bad thing.

How to deal with a manager who doesn’t manage
[Photo: ismagilov/iStock]

If your current boss is overly controlling or micromanages you, having a boss who leaves you alone and lets you do what you want might sound heavenly. But my experience coaching senior leaders with absentee bosses (and research on the topic) says otherwise. An absentee boss can lead to feelings of alienation, job dissatisfaction, and stress.

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How absentee bosses hurts employees

Take Rob, a managing director at a top-tier global professional services firm. Rob’s boss, a powerful partner at the firm, provided Rob with no direction or guidance when it came to his work or career. In addition, he didn’t respond to his emails or calls and provided no feedback to Rob other than an occasional verbal “lashing.” Unsurprisingly, this left Rob dissatisfied, managing his teams in the dark, and deeply concerned about how to make it to the next level in his career.

Another client, Jana, served as the global head of a business unit within one of the world’s largest financial institutions. Her business unit was part of a recent acquisition, and her formerly supportive boss, concerned about his standing in the new company, shut her out and now appeared to be threatened by her. He became unresponsive and created barriers to her integration within the new company, disinviting her from meetings where she should have played a substantial role. He also attempted to restrict her travel to network with other leaders at the company.

Sadly, Rob and Jana are not exceptions. A 2015 poll of 1,000 working adults revealed that eight of the nine top management offenses had to do with what their leaders were not doing, rather than what they were doing. Absentee bosses represent the extreme and worst of laissez-faire leadership. But managing up when your boss is effectively absent presents a unique dilemma. Here are 5 strategies that can help you do just that.

1. Determine if it’s just you

Talk with peers to see what their experience has been with your manager. You may find that they feel the same way you do. Is it possible that there are extenuating circumstances that have contributed to their behaviors? It doesn’t solve the problem of a missing boss, but it can help make a challenging situation feel easier if you see that it’s not personal—as it did for Rob. And if you do discover it’s just you, this is good information.

2. Make clear, specific requests to your boss

Whenever Rob needed to catch his boss’s attention, he’d send an email with “RESPONSE REQUIRED” in all caps in the subject line. He would make an explicit time-bound request for the support he needed. Here’s an example of what he would say: “I need you to review and approve this contract/presentation by Friday or we will not meet the client’s deadline.”

You’ll also need to be persistent in your follow-up. Don’t expect to stop at just one email. Be opportunistic about stating the case for what you need when you happen to see your boss. This may seem extremely frustrating, but it beats the alternative of having their absenteeism impede your ability to make progress and deliver results.

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3. Step into the void

Nature hates a vacuum, so see how you can use this opportunity to step into a higher level of responsibility and hone your leadership skills. As you step up to lead, keep your boss informed so that you can make decisions to keep moving ahead. Email is your friend here. For example, Jana would let her boss know: “I will be moving forward with this decision on Monday unless I hear from you that you prefer another course of action.” Or: “I saw that this was a problem and I am planning on addressing it with a sub-team later this week. Let me know if you have any concerns and/or thoughts you would like us to consider.”

4. Develop your internal network

Work on your internal relationships. When you have mentors or sponsors at the company, you’re much more likely to hear about other potential opportunities (and have advocates when the time comes). Rob developed strategies to develop and deepen his network. Through these efforts, he created a large circle of allies—including a mentor and two sponsors. This helped connect Rob to additional opportunities within the firm and gained him strong support at the top to lobby for his career advancement.

5. Be prepared to look elsewhere

Quitting when you have a bad boss can be hard for many reasons. But if you’ve done what you can to salvage the situation, it may be time to look for opportunities elsewhere. Lynda Gratton, professor at the London Business School, recommends employees ask themselves two questions: “Am I working at a place that will keep me healthy? Am I working at a place that will help me learn?” Use these questions as a litmus test: If you can’t check both those boxes in your current situation, you may be best served by finding someplace elsewhere you can. Ultimately, Jana concluded it would be best to move on and is now happily working at a new organization with a more supportive and engaged boss.

If you find yourself with an absentee boss, the unfortunate truth is that it will be on you to make the situation better for yourself. In the corporate world, those who get promoted to leadership positions aren’t always suited to managing people. Hoping your boss will change will likely be a waste of time.

Accept your feelings about the situation, and drum up the energy to employ the above strategies to succeed in your current role. And if that doesn’t work, put your energy toward looking for a position that will give you the opportunity to thrive.


Dina Smith is an executive coach and leadership consultant.

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