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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

What Having an Absentee Boss Taught Me About Being a Leader

There’s nothing worse than a terrible boss. A person who seems to exist for the sole purpose of making your life miserable, the number one reason you dread Mondays, the only reason you experience anxiety on Sunday nights. A bad boss can be really harmful; in fact, the likelihood that you’ll even stay in a job if you hate your manager is slim. And while crappy supervisors are the worst, right behind them are all the absentee managers of the workplace.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s a manager who doesn’t act like one, and not because he’s too busy trying to be your BFF. This is someone who doesn’t know how to lead, doesn’t care to, or simply can’t or won’t make time for it. Canceled meetings, unanswered emails, zero feedback—the offenses range from annoying to stunting.

Once upon a time, for a few brief months, I reported to such a person. Not only did it make feeling good about the work I was doing a real struggle, but it made it hard to see a future for myself at the company. If this person wasn’t helping me learn, grow, understand my shortcomings and offer suggestions for improvement, and if she wasn’t going to pay me any attention at all, how was I going to ever get recommended for a promotion, much less given more responsibilities?

Sure, I’ll concede that it was nice not being micromanaged and neat not having someone be watchful of my comings and goings, but that was about the only plus. True, I never worried about getting constructive criticism or negative feedback, but it wasn’t the kind of role that merited an absentee boss—though what roles really do, I wonder.

Fortunately, eager to be ever self-aware and turn anything into a learning experience that I can, my time without an active boss taught me a few things. If my boss didn’t want to manage me, I’d have to manage her—the fancy, workplace term for this is called managing up, and if done well, it’s super effective.

I grew comfortable following up on my follow-up emails, placing a handy and hard-to-miss URGENT (in all caps, yes!) in the subject time when I really needed a response. If I bumped into her in the kitchen or in the hallway on the way to the elevator, I had no qualms about brushing aside her apologies for being so busy and hurriedly stating my case for what I needed. My emails became detailed accounts of what I’d done, what I intended to do by a certain date, and what she could do for me before then. I never stopped doing my job; in fact, I often had to make decisions on my own, but because I always made her aware of what was happening, I felt comfortable doing so.

Above all, I learned what kind of leader I aspire to be. It’s important for me to be respectful of others’ times, and so, on a basic level, that means keeping appointments and answering emails without having people “follow up” with me. I don’t want to act like my time is more important or that anyone’s questions are a waste of my time—my superiors or otherwise. I’d rather know that I helped a colleague than inadvertently, with my lack of availability or attentiveness, held him back in any way.

I also learned not to take a good boss for granted. This is an important lesson for you if you’re questioning your career path, curiously examining the role you’re in or the company you work for. If your relationship with your manager’s a solid one, that’s not something you should take lightly. Continue to foster it. Do what you can to impress him and make him look good to his manager. Take notes on his leadership style and what it is about it that you appreciate. When it’s time for you to manage someone, you’ll have someone to emulate.

On the flipside, if you despise your manager, examine exactly why that is. Is she really an awful leader and person, or are you just struggling to find a good way to work together productively? Is there anything you can do differently that might make her respond to you in a more favorable way? Do you get your work done in a timely manner and regularly go above and beyond what you’re asked to do?

For example, if your boss is a micromanager, there may be a way to turn that around to work for your advantage. Or, if she only ever has negative feedback, demonstrate that you’re listening, absorbing it, and making attempts to respond to it. But, if you disagree with it completely, make a case for yourself. There’s something about being heard when the absentee boss alternative is being ignored. See? Bright sides and silver linings.

Lastly, when you find yourself in a position to be a leader, take a close look at yourself and make absolutely certain that no one could ever accuse you of being absent—instead, aim to be the boss that your direct reports admire and aspire to be.

Photo of woman trying to meet with her boss courtesy of Johner Images/Getty Images.