If you keep up with my column, you know that I've covered the topic of bad bosses' impact on organizations for years. Most of what I've found and documented centers around toxic management traits that disengage employees and sends them packing for the competition. For example:
- toxic bosses who look after only themselves;
- toxic bosses who manage through fear and coercion;
- toxic bosses who have narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies; and
- toxic bosses who are never wrong.
But a recent article by the Harvard Business Review gives an interesting new spin on what may arguably be the worst and most incompetent kind of boss. No, the worst bosses are not micromanaging bullies who yell across the hall and raise your blood pressure.
Turns out, the type of boss who gives you a pat on the back and a "You're doing a great job" while the work environment around you is falling apart, and employees and customers alike are jumping ship, that boss may be the worst.
What makes this type of boss especially irritating is that employees on the ground giving it their best -- the ones who actually know what's really going on -- aren't getting the support, availability, and constructive feedback they need to perform at a high level; they get platitudes and empty praises instead from their pretend-leaders who are MIA when it really counts.
The most common type of bad leadership has a new label.
Scott Gregory, the new CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, wrote the HBR piece and calls this destructive management style "absentee leadership." While the term rarely comes up in the business literature, he says "research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership."
Here are three cringe-worthy traits you'll find in absentee leaders.
1. They are psychologically absent.
While they may enjoy all the perks and privileges that come with being in a leadership role, the reality is that they're disconnected from their teams and avoid meaningful involvement with them. As Gregory puts it, "Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics--taking value out of an organization without putting value in."
2. They give away too much freedom without taking responsibility.
If you come from a micromanaged environment, the laissez-faire leadership style has its pluses: It's hands-off, bosses delegate, and employees make all the decisions. But giving employees total command of the ship without giving them guidance and taking responsibility for team decisions is also characteristic of absentee leadership and can be destructive. Gregory references a 2015 survey of 1,000 working adults that showed that "eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviors that were absent; employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn't do."
3. They fly below the radar.
Chances are good that your company is unaware of its absentee leaders, since they operate on stealth mode. Absentee leaders are rarely confronted or held accountable for their actions because they "don't actively make trouble," so dealing with them is often low priority. The focus for disciplinary action is largely held for managers "whose behavior is more overtly destructive." Hence, it can be difficult to detect them. "Absentee leaders are often silent organization killers" who, when left unchecked, "clog an organization's succession arteries," Gregory says.
Final analysis: The impact of absentee leadership.
Gregory references research that showed "being ignored by one's boss is more alienating than being treated poorly." And the potential negative impact of absentee leadership can cripple an organization. As you ascertain whether your organization has undetected absentee leaders wreaking havoc on the workforce, consider the more glaring negative outcomes for employees, according to Gregory:
- Absentee leadership takes longer to appear, but it degrades employees' job satisfaction for at least two years.
- Absentee leadership leads to role ambiguity, health complaints, and increased bullying from team members.
- Absentee leadership causes employee stress, poor employee health outcomes, and talent drain, which then impact an organization's bottom line.
In addition to placing emphasis on protecting workers against toxic bosses like bullies and sexual harassers, it's now evident that absentee leaders have to be added to that list; they may pose an equal or greater danger because they cause covert destruction that is drastically overlooked in comparison with their more visible and aggressive counterparts.