The very real problem of absentee managers

There are a lot of different types of bad bosses in the world — here’s one list and here’s another — but we spend a lot of our time and attention on either (a) the bullying kind or (b) the micromanaging kind. In reality we should be talking about all of these idiots more, because 82% of managers end up being the wrong hire, which is an astronomical fucking failure rate that would never be tolerated in other parts of the business, and because bad management is legitimately leading people to earlier deaths. These are important discussions.

It’s always interested me, though, that we don’t discuss the absentee manager more. This is the kind who does nothing — they barely talk to you, they almost never acknowledge your existence, and yet, when a train is coming for them, you’re the first one going under it. We’ve all had (sadly) or seen (also sadly) this type of person. They’re super, super common.

They’re getting more common with tech. All tech is from a management perspective is a way to hide. E-mail is a platform to hide behind. We all know face-to-face is more effective (been proven by research), but we love e-mail because “it can scale” or whatever. But then we started hating e-mail (confusing), so we replaced it with Slack/other tools, but now we’re all bitching about those tools because it’s too much stuff to manage. Meanwhile, it’s just more platforms for managers to hide within, poorly contextualize assignments, and generally be asshats.

Don’t believe me? I’m coming in hot with some research.

What ya got research-wise on absentee leaders?

From an article written by the CEO of Hogan Assessments:

However, a 2015 survey of 1,000 working adults 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. Clearly, from the employee’s perspective, absentee leadership is a significant problem, and it is even more troublesome than other, more overt forms of bad leadership.

The next line of the article is actually this: Research shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly.

Yep. Doesn’t surprise me.

How about personal examples?

You know I got a few.

I worked at a pretty big healthcare company on a summer project once. It was a 10-week gig. On Day 1 — not even shitting you, Day F’n One — my supervisor tells me she’s going to be gone about 7 of the 10 weeks on different vacations or work trips. 70% of the time. She couldn’t care less. I was some summer peon. To me, the job was a big deal and I was hoping to go full-time on it. Ultimately I did nothing of relevance that summer and was largely ignored by almost everyone. It was miserable and depressing and frankly, disgusting. And what happens on the second-to-last day? She chucks me under a bus about taking meetings with SVPs to learn about the business. I did it while she wasn’t there, wasn’t teaching, wasn’t guiding, so … whatever. People are like this.

My boss at my last full-time gig was actually pretty cool in some respects, but it was “Country Club Management” to the absolute hilt. That’s when all that matters is the perks and being close to the power core. That’s all you care about, prioritize, or do anything about. All your direct reports — who you probably call “subordinates,” ha — are people to be ignored. The big dogs are who you’re chasing. She worked hard and was good at her job, but her management style was Country Club. It’s completely absentee to anyone who isn’t in power.

Why is this “a silent killer?”

Well, think about it — absentee managers aren’t really doing anything, so they’re kind of out of sight, out of mind. And if a bunch of employees came to a top dog and said “Hey, our manager never speaks to us,” how high an organizational priority would that become? Hint: it would not become one. The response, instead, would go like this:

  • Buzzwords
  • Ask for feedback
  • Vague reference to mission statement
  • In reality the exec is thinking “Who cares? My bonus was fat as fuck last year.”

It’s a silent killer because it’s completely prevalent in almost every org — the absentee manager, that is — and yet we don’t really discuss it, and they can’t be punished unless they do something that totally fucks up the revenue.

So here’s what just happened: someone is making more money than you to do nothing and never speak to you, even though the entire reason they make more money is to speak to you and manage those types of issues. (Get it? It’s called management.) Do you see how the entire way we think about and structure work is completely ass backwards?

Can we do anything?

Good Lord no.

You need to understand one thing. All we do in the media right now is discuss entrepreneurs and innovation and deify Elon Musk and all that, right? But in most cities and organizations, hierarchy is actually on the rise. So is bureaucracy.

Why would be this be?

Easy: bureaucracy allows people to hide and be absentee — essentially not do their job — but make more money in the process. All you need to do is:

  • Be somewhat competent
  • Never cross the power core
  • Job-hop a bit to get into the right range
  • Be a political sycophant
  • Rinse and repeat

Tech made all this easier, unfortunately.

You don’t need to believe me, but the research is above, and you’ve probably seen this type of manager 3–4 dozen times. I know I have.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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