The worst kind of leaders aren’t the bad ones. Yes, working for an arrogant, entitled, and abusive boss might feel like a soul-sucking experience. What many don’t realise, though, is that there’s an entirely different breed of under-the-radar leaders whose impact runs deeper and longer on both employees and on the company as a whole: the absent leaders.
These are the leaders who avail themselves of the title of leadership without being psychologically present in their roles. They rarely give feedback, don’t acknowledge their people’s work, and tend to be unapproachable and unavailable most of the time. For one thing, Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely’s research indicates that ignoring people’s work can be almost as destructive as shredding it up in front of them.
More devastatingly, studies have shown that the negative effects of absent leadership on employee satisfaction can persist for up to 2 years. Destructive leadership, on the other hand, leaves only a 6-month adverse effect.
Exactly why does absentee leadership exert a stronger influence on employee well-being than destructive leadership, though?
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The clearest, and perhaps worst, consequence of absentee leadership is the almost total absence of feedback. Besides the annual performance reviews, it’s not likely that you’ll find such leaders spending time to give constructive criticism with their employees.
It’s a grave mistake; failing to spend time to engage with employees erodes the social and emotional capital that a leader needs to influence positive change on an individual, team, and organisational scale. Additionally, with little to no employee recognition practices, people will feel under-appreciated and undervalued as time passes.
Millennials, in particular, are likely to find the lack of feedback grating; they tend to crave and desire regular feedback much more than previous generations did. According to a 2016 survey by Clutch, 72% of millennials who receive constant and accurate feedback are satisfied at work. In contrast, only 62% of those who don’t receive regular feedback reported feeling unfulfilled.
All of this adds up to lowered performance levels and higher employee turnover in the long run.
Leaders often set the tone for the entire team. A highly motivated and empathic leader is far likelier to engender the support, hard work, and dedication of his subordinates than one who is disengaged and absent in the role. The latter’s behaviour consistently sends the message that the boss cares only about himself or herself, and their own work.
Ultimately, when people feel like the only time their managers will engage with them is if something in the office caught fire, it’s extremely destructive to employee-employer trust. In such situations, psychological safety hardly matters—the leaders aren’t even around that much for you to feel either threatened or safe in their presence.
What’s worse, while absent leaders may not be abusive, they can end up enabling toxic work environments. Even if they may not be actively creating them, leaders hold the bulk of the responsibility for maintaining a positive workplace atmosphere that’s conducive to collaboration and effective teamwork. When the leader is never around, though, it leaves room for all manner of office bullies and toxic co-workers to step in unrestricted and dominate, to disastrous effect.