Why a hands-off boss is worse than a micromanager
Compared to a micromanager, a hands-off boss may seem ideal. However, an uninvolved boss can be just as maddening and even more damaging to employees and organizations.
These managers “may feel that their more relaxed or laissez-faire approach to leadership empowers others to pave their own way,” and their subordinates may initially feel the same way, says Jennifer Lowe, a corporate solutions consultant at the HR tools vendor Hogan Assessment Systems. “But in reality, this approach may result in disempowered employees who are less productive because they lack a sense of strategic direction.”
That’s because uninvolved managers don’t provide basic feedback let alone set forth a vision for the future.
Lack of vision sometimes goes along with lack of scruples. Instead of developing employees, a passive leader will deplete them. Such managers “are content to use the native talent of team members to get by, or they pass off others’ work as their own,” says Karen Reardon, a management professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Leadership consultant Roxi Hewertson worked for just such a boss years ago. “There were a lot of self-motivated people who made him look good, and he coasted on our results. He took credit for everyone’s work including mine,” says Hewertson, adding that he ignored employees “until it suited his purpose.”
Not all “under-managers,” as Harvard Business Review blogger Greg McKeown calls them, stoop so low as to steal credit. In fact, oftentimes they are “nice but weak,” as McKeown describes them. They don’t like to make waves, and they want to be liked.
They do tend to be liked at first because employees value autonomy. However, “Autonomy happens when your boss works with you to establish mutually agreed-upon stretch goals and then gives you the space you need to reach those goals on your own so you can grow” while providing resources to succeed and guidance when needed, says Chad M. Oakley III, president and COO of the executive search firm Charles Aris Inc.
In other words, autonomy doesn’t feel like abandonment.
Perhaps under-managers are best identified by what they don’t do. Most obviously and significantly, they neither coach nor champion their subordinates. “Most promotions and career growth take place when two things are true: you’re good at self-promotion and you have a champion within the organization. It’s very difficult to advance if your direct supervisor is not your champion,” Oakley says.
So folks who work for an under-manager need to be stronger self-promoters and find a “surrogate champion,” he adds.
Career growth also depends on addressing weaknesses, which cannot occur without feedback. “Most human beings cannot see themselves and their weaknesses clearly. Careers fizzle because of these blind spots,” says Robert Steven Kaplan, a management practice professor and senior associate dean at Harvard Business School.
It is critical, therefore, to seek out feedback when none is offered.
Start by scheduling a meeting with the boss. “There’s very little downside to going to the boss and saying, ‘I feel I have an opportunity to develop but I need help. How would you recommend we address this in our relationship?’” says Michael E. Echols, an executive vice president at Bellevue University in Nebraska.
The occasion calls for specificity and sincerity. “You’d be shocked how many subordinates give off the vibe that they don’t really want feedback,” Kaplan says. “Tell your supervisor you want to work on your strengths and weaknesses and ask, ‘What are one or two things you’ve observed that you believe I need to do better to improve my performance?’”
As a show of sincerity, give the boss time to prepare a thoughtful response, he adds.
If the boss can’t or won’t help, “It’s not without risk but it’s totally appropriate to get feedback from someone else, considering what’s at stake,” Echols says.
Oakley agrees that it’s critical to seek out a “surrogate champion” if the boss is unsupportive. Have a specific position or goal in mind and ask for help achieving it, including an action plan and a clear-eyed assessment of any “gaps in your skill set,” he says.
In addition, be prepared to “learn and do as much as you can on your own,” says Hewertson, who’s now CEO of Highland Consulting Group in Trumansburg, N.Y. “I found myself in all kinds of interesting meetings my boss didn’t want to attend. I was able to grow new and influential relationships within the organization. It was great to see and learn from other leaders who were effective, and, best of all, I was able to accomplish many things that looked fantastic on my résumé, all while he was asleep at the wheel.”
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