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Apr 01

Absentee leaders are worst of all

 A surprising insight by Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, was recently published in the prestigious Harvard Business Review – extracts follow

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  • A young friend recently remarked that the worst boss he ever had would provide him with feedback that always consisted of “you’re doing a great job” but they both knew it wasn’t true — the organisation was in disarray, turnover was excessive, and customers were not happy.

  • My friend was giving it his all, but he needed more support and better feedback than he received – he wanted a leader who would be around when he needed one, and who would give him substantive advice, not platitudes

  • As a measure of his frustration, he said, “I would rather have had a boss who yelled at me or made unrealistic demands than this one, who provided empty praise.”

  • His manager was not overtly misbehaving, nor was he a ranting, narcissistic sociopath – rather, he was a leader in title only — his role was leadership, but he provided none

  • My friend was experiencing absentee leadership – and unfortunately, he is not alone

  • Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership

  • Absentee leaders are people who were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams

  • Having a boss who lets you do as you please may sound ideal, especially if you are being bullied and micromanaged by your current boss – however, a survey of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviours that were absent – employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do

  • Research shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly

  • The impact of absentee leadership on job satisfaction outlasts the impact of both constructive and overtly destructive forms of leadership:

    • Constructive leadership immediately improves job satisfaction, but the effects dwindle quickly.

    • Destructive leadership immediately degrades job satisfaction, but the effects dissipate after about six months.

    • Absentee leadership takes longer to appear, but it degrades subordinates’ job satisfaction for at least two years:

      • Also, it’s related to a number of other negative outcomes for employees, like role ambiguity, health complaints, and increased bullying from team members

      • And it creates employee stress, which can lead to poor employee health outcomes and talent drain, which then impact an organisation’s bottom line.

  • Most organisations don’t confront absentee leaders because they have other managers whose behaviour is more overtly destructive

  • Indeed, because absentee leaders don’t actively make trouble, their negative impact on organisations can be difficult to detect, and when it is detected, it’s often considered a low-priority problem

  • Thus, absentee leaders are silent organisation killers:

    • They clog an organisation’s succession arteries, blocking potentially more effective people from moving into important roles while adding little to productivity

    • They rarely engage in unforgiveable bouts of bad behaviour, and are rarely the subject of ethics investigations resulting from employee hotline calls

    • As a result, their negative effect on organisations accumulates over time, largely unchecked

  • Indeed, the chances are that your organisation is unaware of its absentee leaders because they specialise in flying under the radar by not doing anything that attracts attention whilst slowly harming the company

  • Given it’s organisations with the best leaders which usually win, then the war for leadership talent is ongoing and serious

  • Reviewing your organisation’s management positions for absentee leaders and doing something about them can significantly improve your talent management arsenal and so overall performance

  • Doing nothing about them is easy – just ask any absentee leader

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