Absentee Leadership

Claire Vane
April 27, 2020

We are all familiar, as subordinates, with some excellent leaders during our career, but probably remember more vividly the disruptive and destructive kind of leadership, where one feels completely miserable at work.  We have noticed, because remote working brings an exaggerated form of what already is, that one of the most disruptive kinds of leadership is what is sometimes called absentee leadership or, in other words, laissez-faire.

The interesting thing about absentee leadership is that although there has been a great deal of research on the subject, it has not been widely talked about, partly because those who are in charge, i.e. the bosses of absentee leaders, cannot see the absentee leadership but subordinates see it all too clearly.

On the one hand we have constructive leadership and, on the other, destructive leadership. Absentee leadership sits between the two. What it is, in essence, is an avoidance of active, positive, leadership behaviours. It can include non-involvement with subordinates, and this is why it is not easily observed by the leaders’ bosses. They don’t see the problems as they find it more pressing, important - and obvious -  to deal with the apparently really negative behaviours.

Imagine a Governing Body of a school, or the Chief Executive of a listed company, or a busy Chief Executive of a small company; they are always having to deal with parental complaints, fraud, really bad behaviour such as drunkenness, gender discrimination, harassment and minor versions of the above along with performance issues that are giving the organisation a real headache.  The people to whom a laissez-faire leader reports are often too busy dealing with the really obvious problems so cannot see that laissez-faire leadership is equally causing real damage in the organisation.

The laissez-faire/absentee leader often justifies his or her behaviour by saying that people don’t like micro-management and they are giving the team the independence to operate as they wish. What it actually results in, is that the followers (if there are leaders, there are always followers…) lack direction and motivation, as their leaders show no interest. This can often be demonstrated by a failure to give regular and coherent feedback and a failure to ensure that desired behaviours are rewarded.

This style of leadership leaves people in a grey area, which is incredibly destructive, especially in a time like this when good remote working is essential. It is not an actively destructive type of leadership but is incredibly damaging in the long term. Subordinates of such leaders say the following of their so-called leaders:

  1. None of my achievements get recognised
  2. I don’t get any guidance
  3. My boss has no time for me
  4. My boss never walks the floors when we’re present, and is very absent when we’re working remotely. S/he actively avoids talking to me as s/he’s uncomfortable with it.
  5. My boss takes the credit for what I do
  6. I don’t even get negative feedback so it doesn’t seem to make any difference what I do.
  7. He doesn’t even know my name.
  8. He doesn’t know that I have a life outside work or what that might consist of or the particular challenges that I am facing; he gives me apples when I need pears.

Absenteeism management is very dangerous and is going to become more prevalent, as those who are already absentee in style find the remote working situation even more uncomfortable whilst presenting them with the opportunity to decrease their communication still further.

We’re now running  our leadership development courses live, online, and if this is an area that rings bells or is worth thinking about, for those of you who are managing leaders, please do get in touch to discuss our well-tested workshops which we can run now in preparation for a return to the new normal.

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Claire Vane

Claire is the Managing Director and Founder of Integrated Resources. She is passionate about releasing potential in individuals and organisations.

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