The 4 Worst Habits of the Absent Boss

I once had a boss who preferred planes to work. And I am not talking about the type of planes that you use to go meet with customers and partners. He preferred little ones — the ones that are needed by amateur pilots to get their license. He preferred the ones with propellers because his life focus was on buying a plane and using it to fly to his vacation home. 

He was mostly a good guy. But he was an awful boss.

The trouble was that he was never around. And when he was there physically, he was still not all there.

His direct reports were left to fend for themselves. They often felt abandoned, having to worry if he would approve of the action they needed to take. When he did show, he did all the talking rather than ask questions and deepen his understanding of the business and team. And then he would disappear.

Some people might say the worst kind of manager is the micro-manager. But I’d like to propose a different kind of hell: the one where your overlord is an absent title.

If you are nodding in agreement, you know what I mean. You may even have a boss who is physically present but a mental or emotional wasteland, since he waves you off every time an interaction would help you both. It would actually be better for you and the business if he actually did disappear.

Even though we all work remotely at Aha! I make a point of making myself available to our team. And I do my best to personally meet with every employee once a quarter. That will not be possible for long as we are growing fast, but being present is everything to me. I will find new ways to be open and available, including traveling to more of our team’s in-person meetings.

If your boss is more “out” than “in,” your level of frustration will depend on what happens during your interactions.

So, think about your recent interactions and consider how they made you feel. If you can honestly say “yes” to the following list of emotions, your absent boss is driving you mad:

Irresponsible
Because the boss never has time to focus on strategy, you are left without an agreed-upon roadmap for your work. Once you complete the tasks you know are important, you are always left to decide what to do next. The result: Plenty of aimless wandering and a gnawing sense of anxiety. You should not need to worry about whether you will be second-guessed.

Unresponsive
Instead of responding in a reasonable time, like a few hours, he takes days or weeks to give you an answer. By that time, you have already made a decision and moved on. You just hope it was the right one. You continually wonder why it’s so hard for him to give you a quick “yea or nay.”

Indifferent
You do not live for praise, but an occasional “good job” would give you confidence that you are on the right track. Because the boss has no idea what you are working on, he cannot deliver any specific feedback or affirmation.

Spontaneous
You never know when the boss will appear exactly. When he does, he wants an immediate update, and you have no time to gather your thoughts. He is disappointed in your lack of preparation and you are sorry that you let him down. But you also feel like you have been blindsided once again.

If you have been impacted by the thoughts and feelings in the list above, you know that your boss might be great at some things (like flying a plane), but still has a lot to learn about leading others.

Leadership is hard work. It requires zeroing in on what matters most and taking the time to tackle tough problems. It also means putting others first and focusing on what they need from you to be their best.

The good news is that you are not powerless in this situation — but changing the situation requires bold action on your part. Stop your boss the next time you need an answer. Start a frank conversation about your responsibilities and the level of support (or true freedom) that you need.

Your persistence will be a wake-up call that his leadership is lacking. Your show of strength and maturity will help you build confidence in your own leadership potential and whatever comes next — whether your boss is around or not.

How have you dealt with an absent boss?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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