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How to advance your career when your boss is MIA

Dealing with an unavailable or unengaged manager presents a specific sort of challenge.

How to advance your career when your boss is MIA
[Source image: Jian Fan/iStock]
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No one enjoys working for a boss who is constantly checking up on them and micromanaging their every move. We’re motivated by a certain degree of autonomy to achieve goals based on intrinsic talent, not just external feedback and direction. But when your boss is regularly unengaged for long stretches of time, the joy of independence may soon shift to concern about their capacity and commitment to help you achieve your career goals. 

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These days it’s not uncommon for you to interact with your boss less during the work week than before the pandemic, since so many of us are working remotely still. But even before COVID-19, research showed that as many as 45% of managers didn’t feel confident in their ability to develop their employees. That can lead managers to avoid consistent and meaningful connection with team members. In addition, given growing workloads and broader spans of control in so many organizations, lots of managers barely find time to coach their direct reports, providing only 9% of their time, on average.

Your boss is also arguably the one person in your company with the most influence over your future promotion. Not knowing whether they will advocate for you when opportunities come up, plus not being able to connect regularly to make your case, can complicate your advancement potential. But if you follow these strategies in managing up and increasing your organizational value in their absence, you‘ll have a better shot at controlling your career destiny. 

Assume your manager has positive intent

When you are confident in your performance and are finding validation at work, you likely don’t worry too much about where your boss is and what she’s thinking about you. But when she is offering very little feedback or availability to you, yet making time for others, you may find yourself feeling resentful toward them. 

In these moments, it’s best to shift to an empathic mindset, imagining what it would be like if you were in her place. Just like you and everyone else, she is dealing with the massive shift in work life due to COVID-19. But given her higher leadership role, she may struggle to be vulnerable in admitting her struggles. She also may communicate less, for fear of relaying tentative information that will change during this unpredictable time. 

In the meantime, continue to document your successes so you have a record of how you’re developing and driving results, which you can show to her when the time is right. It can also help to see that bosses often become “mentally” MIA on certain issues even if they are available to you for others, not out of malicious intent but rather based on their comfort level. 

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One executive I worked with had a friendly relationship with his boss who supported his career growth as well. But because his boss was highly introverted, not particularly ambitious, and wasn’t very plugged into networks across the organization, any discussions with him about career development were generally limited in value. The more this executive tried to request his mentorship and support for a lateral or upward move, the more his boss began to politely deflect to other topics. 

After recognizing that his boss’s intentions were a sign of his own lack of confidence to advise on certain topics, the executive decided to reach out to other leaders and diversify his circle of influence. He committed to getting to know a few new people every week and offered help on work issues. In time, he was recommended by a new contact for a promotion in another division and he still maintained a close relationship with his former boss. 

Meet them where they are mentally when you can’t see them physically

In working to bridge the gap between you and your increasingly absent boss, it helps to recognize whether there is a separation that is merely geographical, caused by a lack of emotional connection and trust, or a mix of the two. 

If you are traditionally close to your boss on a personal level, but suddenly the virtual work environment or some other shift has made it difficult to connect, try suggesting a weekly or bi-weekly call. This arrangement can ensure a steady work rhythm and maintain your visibility in a way that doesn’t overly burden their schedule. 

In those calls, accommodate your boss’s style by noticing the moments where they are more engaged and less so. It can help to proactively offer help on the things that they need most immediately, and then introduce longer-term issues like your career development. 

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For instance, if you can tell from their mannerisms that they’re impatient, match their pace by speeding up and being concise. You may ask them, “I don’t want to take up too much of your time, what’s the most important thing I can do this week to ease your burden?”  

Then when you sense they are inviting you in mentally, you can say, “by the way, as we are reaching the next quarter, I wanted to run something by you around my development plan; can we arrange a chat at your convenience?” By seeking first to understand their tendencies and meet them where they are, you’re in a better position to ask for their support on your career goals because you created a sense of comfort and reliability first. 

If the distance between you is more of a lack of connection, it’s important to activate your emotional intelligence and communicate with self-awareness and curiosity, rather than the typical small talk. 

As research from Harvard Business School shows, physical closeness in organizations isn’t always possible, but for healthy, productive teams, mental and emotional proximity is essential. The way to reduce the psychological distance between you and your boss is to create conversations that foster, among other things, intimacy and intentionality. 

This means that you must take the responsibility to initiate interactions that enable deeper exchanges of trust-building, listening without judgment and gently guiding your manager to consider things they may not readily see but that ultimately will make their job and life easier. One way to do this is to think ahead about the challenges they will face, and offer to help with no expectations about how they will respond. 

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You should also try to stay on their radar in nonintrusive ways that further the dialogue and convey a sense of care without a personal agenda. For instance, reach out and check in on them, just to acknowledge their impact on you or the team and ask if they need anything. If they aren’t responsive to your occasional efforts at reaching out, leverage the moments after scheduled team meetings to follow up with them on issues of importance and how you’ll deliver on action steps. 

Step up in their absence and lead on their behalf

If your boss is frequently MIA, you may immediately start to wonder if he’s just avoiding you or the whole team. But when you think like a leader, not just an employee, you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter why or whom he’s avoiding; someone needs to step up and keep the team’s morale and productivity up and you can help. Doing so will not only prepare you for advanced roles but will send a message that you are serious about taking on more leadership responsibility. 

This is a moment for you to go beyond your own needs for validation in the absence of your boss and embody the leadership role you want to advance into anyway. So first, make sure you don’t let your performance slip. Remember that someday your boss may move on, or you will, so how they are acting shouldn’t dictate your commitment to your role and the company.  

But at this moment, and provided your boss doesn’t feel insecure or threatened by your initiative, you may be able to demonstrate even more value to him despite the distance. Increase your presence with the team to improve cohesion. Be the cheerleader they need for connection and momentum. Of course, keep your boss informed every step of the way, but offer your help and time to keep everyone in a state of harmony and efficiency.  

Bosses, much like parents, don’t want to be away for a time only to find out the house is a mess and the family is fighting. By seizing this time to work on your leader’s behalf and keep the operation steady, your manager will notice your potential to lead and your actions will speak much louder than any words you could use to report your successes. 

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Enlist key influencers inside and outside the company to promote you  

If all else fails in developing a better rhythm or deeper connection with an absent manager while you are looking to advance your career, cast a wider net of people with influence who can eventually advise and champion you. 

As you begin to meet more leaders in your company, and even outside the company, offer stories of success in your work. But also approach them with humility and a desire to learn— otherwise they may not know how to help you, or whether you want their assistance. In addition to building a team of advocates around you, you may even consider asking your company’s HR partner or your manager to provide you with an executive coach to take the pressure off of your boss to develop you alone and bring in an additional resource that can partner with them to help you.  

A VP at a Fortune 100 company was connected with me as her coach because she proactively asked for help not only to develop her leadership capabilities, but also to signal to the company that she was serious about her growth and was willing to work on herself and her style in a formal and measurable way. Her boss welcomed the partnership because I could translate much of the boss’s expectations into workable plans that benefited both of them. 


Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, 3M, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and more. You can access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team and receive his monthly newsletter.