The most destructive type of leader is the one who doesn’t cheat, bully or insult his colleagues – he simply doesn’t do anything. A growing body of research shows that absentee leadership, also called laissez-faire leadership, is not only harming teams, but can cause measurable loss in productivity and turnover for the company.
As the old adage goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In any organisation, the managers who wreak the most havoc are the ones who get attention, whether it be developmental support or disciplinary action. However, research shows that the most nefarious type of management isn’t even on your radar: absentee leadership.
Absentee leaders are leaders who are physically present but don’t offer any actual guidance to their teams. These are people who don’t actively make trouble, therefore the destruction they can cause often goes undetected and they don’t receive the developmental resources necessary to change. In fact, preliminary research from Hogan Assessments suggests that these leaders are highly cautious and unassertive – characteristics that do not generally stand out from the crowd. Because absentee leaders rarely display particularly egregious behaviour, they are not subject to corrective action. As a result, their negative effect on organisations accumulates over time and becomes increasingly difficult to address.
One of the strongest indicators of absentee leadership is low job engagement amongst team members. If employees seem to be dissatisfied with their jobs yet the team of showing no overt signs of management problems, it’s likely the problem is absenteeism. Results of a 2015 study on employee complaints pointed directly to the problem of absentee leadership. The survey participants listed things such as lack of recognition or constructive feedback, ambiguity around expectations and directions, and lack of time spent meeting with subordinates.
One British study shows the importance of feedback: although 72 percent of small business owners considers it valuable, and 32 percent even believes it is essential, 23 percent of surveyed employees say they only receive feedback during the yearly reviews, while 21 percent never do. Absentee leaders are also named as the worst enemies of productivity at work: The “Workforce view in Europe 2018” study shows that one in 10 employees in the UK are “rarely” or “never” productive (the highest rate among Europeans) due to bad management.
Absentee leaders are pervasive in organisations for a few main reasons. First, organisations are notoriously bad at identifying good leaders. Often employees are promoted because they aren’t causing problems and may be well-liked. However, being a good corporate citizen does not translate into good leadership. Secondly, employees who are promoted may not actually understand what is required of leadership. These people are likely good at the job they were hired to do, but lack management training or experience. Thirdly, organisational culture may not emphasize the importance of feedback. Providing effective feedback is challenging and fear of angering employees often prevents leaders from correcting behaviours.
5 ways absentee management can ruin an organisation
- Uncertainty about roles: absentee leaders set unclear expectations for their team members, which increases ambiguity around what they are doing. As a result, energy is spent trying to determine what to do rather than actually taking action.
- Lower job satisfaction: the lack of feedback from an absentee leader can make an employee feel undervalued and uncertain about their purpose. Decreased job satisfaction is strongly linked to reduced productivity, which results in huge losses for companies.
- Health complaints: the stress of absentee leadership increases internal churn, which can affect health in a number of ways, from anxiety and depression to increased blood pressure and gastrointestinal distress.
- Burnout: A Gallup poll shows that ambiguity about roles and a lack of communication and support from managers are key factors for burnout. Lack of clear leadership places an undue burden on employees and leads to higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism.
- Intention to leave: the most common reason employees leave is due to bad management. According to a study of destructive leadership, employees experienced absentee leadership at nearly double the rates of other types of poor leadership.
Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan Assessments, has been researching absentee leadership for nearly 30 years. According to him, “although their effects on employees are well-known, few organisations are systematically identifying and dealing with absentee leaders. The chances are good that your organisation is unaware of its absentee leaders because they specialise in flying under the radar by not doing anything that attracts attention.” Using objective measures of performance, like assessing personality, can help identify these latent behaviours. As Gregory adds, is “if your organisation is one of the relatively few with effective selection and promotion methods in place, then it may be able to identify effective and destructive leaders.”