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.