It’s easy to equate poor leadership with qualities like paranoid hypersensitivity, willingness to abuse power, narcissism, or an abject fear of risk and challenge. Leaders who exhibit these behaviors are often rooted out quickly, as it may be difficult to miss such blatant displays of incompetence without turning a blind eye. But worse, perhaps, than the obviously terrible leaders are those who do absolutely nothing. They might not be manipulating employees into doing their work or stealing company resources, but they avoid meaningful engagement to such a degree that even calling them leaders is a misnomer.
Absentee leadership is the most common form of supervisor incompetence according to a study published in the British Journal of Management. Their inability to perform is a direct result of absentee leaders’ aversion to productive team involvement. They embrace a laissez-faire philosophy to a destructive degree, often offering no more than hollow praise, even to employees in critical need of constructive guidance. A form of rent-seeking, absenteeism involves accepting all the trappings and perks of leadership, while providing no value in return.
For some employees—especially those working under an overly manipulative or micromanaging boss—having a hands-off manager might seem like a dream. However, data suggests that the employees who actually have to deal with absent leadership feel strongly otherwise. A survey of 1,000 workers found that eight of the top nine employee complaints about leaders involved absentee leadership. Not recognizing achievements, failing to give clear direction and refusing to talk to subordinates were just a few of the absent behaviors that employees listed as typical of bad managers.
It’s easy to ignore the effects of absentee leaders, as there are relatively few that can be directly tied to them. Taken individually, none of their actions result in any significant negative impact, so they tend to skate by under the radar. Unlike the havoc unleashed by the overtly incompetent, damage from absentee leaders builds slowly over time. But according to a 2015 study on the long-term impacts of poor management on employee job satisfaction, the ill-effects of absentee leadership are actually more harmful overall than tyrannical leadership practices.
The study revealed that worker satisfaction declined immediately under tyrant leaders, and remained low for around six months. Absentee management, on the other hand, took longer to have an effect, but eroded subordinate satisfaction for at least two years; in addition, absenteeism was linked to detrimental worker outcomes such as health complaints and infighting among teammates.
Absentee leadership is pervasive; from the shadows of complacency it manifests, eating away at progress company-wide. Organizations concerned for their future should prioritize strong recruitment and promotion policies that weed out absenteeism, and replace it with constructive leadership.
For most workers, motivation on the job comes in waves. It arrives at the onset of personal success—i.e. getting hired—and carries over as that success translates company wide, and our hard work pays career-boosting dividends. But the ride is rarely so smooth all the time. We’ve all heard about the volatility of modern business. And many have felt how organizational failures stain with uncertainty even the motivated worker’s psyche. How should we react? Should we double-down and ask for extra responsibility? Soldier on, like nothing is off? Or is it time to cut and run?
It may be painful to admit, but questions like these are common among employees of companies fishing for a future in rough waters. No one wants to sink with the ship. However, allowing oneself to be jarred by undercurrents of doubt is no way to function, especially in a professional setting. Instead, there are techniques that employees in even the most volatile of fields can use to brace well and maintain their career footing.
Find Ways to Pitch In
It might feel unwise to undertake additional tasks in an environment where your ability to complete your current workload could influence job security. However, taking the initiative when your company shows warning signs is a good way to maintain a mindset grounded in finding solutions, rather than worrying about problems.
Reflect on Your Inner Values
Few good things come free, which is why we stomach all manner of hardships in the short-term. But when results like promotions, raises and yearly bonuses are in doubt, it’s a bit difficult to maintain motivations based purely in material rewards. It’s a good idea, then, to do a bit of “internal auditing.” Discover how your work in some way facilitates your life’s core purpose (and if it doesn’t, fix that) and you’ll be able to derive the motivation to keep pushing, even if material rewards seem temporarily scarce.
Take Up a Pastime Unrelated to Work
Sometimes the reality of life leaves us in a position we would rather avoid. If you do happen to dislike your job, but circumstances render you unable to leave, the added nightmare of job insecurity will only pile on the stress—unless you find fulfillment elsewhere. Devoting yourself to an activity you truly enjoy will allow for invaluable decompression time. A daunting situation may appear much less so, when faced with freshly calmed nerves and anticipation of good times ahead.
Appreciate the Small Victories
Dwelling on all things rotten is an unfortunate human tendency, but it’s also one that can be sidestepped with bit of self-reflection. Workers in jeopardy need only realize, for example, that if their company is failing—and coworkers are dropping like flies—there are probably many good reasons why their job is intact. Pinpointing the small, everyday successes that maintain supervisors’ faith in you will prove that progress is still being made, even though it might not feel like it.
A new style of management has recently gained popularity in which supervisors aiming to maximize employee engagement attempt to empower their staff. Empowerment in such cases usually involves assigning workers greater authority, granting access to more information, and bestowing additional autonomy in decision making.
Managers that use empowerment techniques often share in the preconception that doing so can only benefit their business. However, a recent meta-analysis of 105 studies on leadership strategies claims to undermine the assumption that empowerment is a universal good. Rather, the analysis asserts that as a motivational tool, empowerment initiatives are best applied on a situational—and individual—basis.
The review—conducted by university business lecturers Allan Lee, Sarah Willis and Amy Wei Tian, and published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior—analyzed over 30,000 workers across 30 countries. It examined whether empowerment boosts organizational performance, as well as which types of performance are benefited. Another question posed was how this leadership style actually translates to improved performance; for example, is it empowerment itself that motivates workers or simply an increased sense of trust in their superiors?
When comparing leaders whom employees considered more empowering to those rated less, it was found that empowering leaders were more likely to have employees known by coworkers and managers as highly creative and devoted to company-wide betterment. Workers who thrived under empowerment generally demonstrated a heightened penchant for novel ideas and new methodologies, as well as a willingness to assist other employees, take on extra tasks, and support their organization from beyond the workplace.
According to the research, such workers excelled in creativity, confidence, and commitment because they actually felt empowered. They derived fulfillment from the freedoms and responsibilities of empowerment. As empowerment made them comfortable in the workplace, they became willing to take the risk of presenting alternative ideas or processes. In addition, empowered employees indicated a greater degree of trust in their supervisors—as long as they didn’t interpret the added responsibility as veiled attempts at passing off work.
In cases where employees read their supervisors’ actions as an attempt to dodge the hard choices that accompany leadership, employees experienced frustration and doubt, not only with leaders, but their own role in the company. In certain situations, this led to an epidemic of on-the-job stress, which stunted performance company-wide.
Researchers also analyzed whether variables such as culture and industry played a part in determining whether empowerment succeeds in boosting performance and engagement. They discovered that while employee receptivity to empowerment varied little between labor and asset-intensive fields, cultural differences—specifically, the way in which Eastern and Western cultures characterize the workplace dynamic—did impact whether empowerment strategies improved performance.
The performance of workers native to Eastern cultures was shown to benefit more from the added responsibility of empowerment than those in the West. To explain this, researchers point to workplace norms in Eastern countries, which dictate that employees are to be unflinchingly loyal and accommodating toward leaders. Western cultures, on the other hand, allow for more independence, therefore Western workers may find empowerment intrusive and overly controlling.
In terms of how empowerment affects overall employee performance, results were largely variable based on unique situations. No definitive trend was observed toward empowerment having a net positive, or net negative effect on general, routine performance—aside from its ability to boost creativity and organizational citizenship. The analysis also had trouble pinpointing whether empowerment itself is responsible for heightened performance and engagement, or whether managers are simply more likely to grant empowerment privileges to workers who naturally perform better and demonstrate investment in the company.
Managers looking to adopt empowerment as a tool for encouraging employees therefore should be mindful not only of how they frame the added responsibility, but who they introduce it to. Instead of a blanket application of empowerment, the focus should be on developing a strong working relationship with all employees, as certain personalities and outlooks seem to function optimally under such a system, while others suffer setbacks in performance and engagement.
About Scott Avila
When Scott Avila began his career, the restructuring industry didn’t exist. Today, however, Scott has more than 25 years of experience helping to set struggling companies on a path to success. He’s worked in a wide range of roles at distressed companies across a variety of industries. He believes true change doesn’t always start with an answer, but instead, with a question: Investors, leaders, and companies need to ask themselves what issues they face as well as what they’re doing–or not doing–in order to turn their goals into realities.
Scott Avila is the CEO of Armory Strategic Partners, where he specializes in restructuring companies in the middle market and helping them to increase profits, grow, and build cohesive team cultures. Prior to this position, he was a Principal in Deloitte’s Corporate Restructuring Group and a Managing Partner at CRG Partners Group prior to its sale to Deloitte in 2012.
These roles often required Scott Avila to step in and assume leadership of companies, and in fact, he has served as chief restructuring officer (CRO) at a $250 million international motorcycle products manufacturer and distributor, a $250 million branded apparel manufacturer and distributor, CRO and chief operating officer (COO) of a $900 million international leasing and computer reseller, an advisor to a $12 billion farm cooperative, and many other companies. He has also worked across a broad spectrum of industries such as media, publishing, telecommunications, energy, healthcare, finance, and many others.
After working at different firms across various industries, Scott Avila is a firm believer that a business’ culture helps to shape its success. Some of the strongest companies are those with mission-based cultures where achieving the company’s mission is the highest priority for all employees. In fact, one of the first things Scott likes to do when stepping into a new company is make sure that everyone understands the mission and is ready to make it a reality.
Scott Avila earned his B.B.A. from California State University and his M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. He currently lives with his family in California, where he frequently writes and lectures on a number of topics related to restructuring.
More About Scott
Scott Avila has held membership in numerous professional organizations. He has assumed interim executive or advisory roles in various restructuring projects for companies including but not limited to:
-A $250 million branded apparel manufacturer and distributor
-A $900 million international leasing and computer reseller
-An independent TV and movie production facility
Scott earned his B.B.A. at California State University, Hayward and his M.B.A. at the University of Southern California.