Dealing with a hands-off boss

By Rachel Zupek Farrell,

To some employees, working for an absentee boss is a dream come true. But in reality, working for someone so "hands-off" can hurt your career.

"A hands-off boss does an employee a disservice when the employee is unable or unwilling to fulfill her responsibilities and the boss does not step in to work with the employee to diagnose the problem and improve performance," says Bob Lazzarini, a member of the faculty at the Graduate Management Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. "It is the responsibility of the boss -- and the employee -- to engage each other, with the manager providing appropriate direction and support."

The reasons a boss may be absentee are many, says Bettina Seidman, career coach with Seidbet Associates, a career management company.
"They may not have management skills or perhaps they don't enjoy engaging with subordinates or getting involved in 'messy' interpersonal relationships," she says. "Sometimes individuals are promoted into management positions based on job expertise and don't understand the role." 

In the best of cases, perhaps your boss just trusts you to do the job and doesn't know you need more leadership.

"[Maybe the boss] believes that leaving you alone is exactly what's needed for you and your team to perform and develop most effectively," Lazzarini says. "Or perhaps your boss is leaving you alone because she thinks you know what to do, how to do it, and you have the resources and motivation you need to be successful without her becoming the dreaded micromanager."

Whatever the reason, a boss who's not much of a boss can be frustrating. Fortunately, there are ways you can cope with the situation. One obvious remedy is to take the situation into your own hands. Have a conversation about your needs and how your boss can help to support you, Lazzarini says.
"When in doubt, communicate," he says. "Being aware of one's own hands-off management practices is one thing. Having the time and presence of mind to communicate that awareness to you may be another thing entirely."

What you should not do is make assumptions about why your boss is MIA -- or even that she knows she's lacking leadership. Instead, manage up, Lazzarini suggests. 

"Manage up by contacting your boss and inviting a conversation. Take responsibility for sharing what you are experiencing, inviting your boss to help you think through what is needed -- including her more regular presence -- for you to perform more effectively," Lazzarini says. "Affirm your boss's engagement, and invite her to consider setting up a more regular opportunity to meet, since you find it helpful."

If neither of these tactics works, make the most of your situation with these two tips:

1. Do what you are supposed to be doing.
"No employee is well-served by saying, 'Well, you weren't here, boss, and I really didn't know what to do,'" Lazzarini says. "You may not know it, but there are lots of people, maybe even your boss, who are not getting enough of their boss's attention and direction. Figure out what needs to be done to advance the organization's mission, objectives and goals. Then do them, whether or not it's your job and irrespective of whether someone gave you direction."

2. Start doing things you would direct someone in your role to do if you were the boss.
Of course, make sure to not overreach to the point that you lose your job or bankrupt the organization, Lazzarini says.
"The sooner you begin to think like your manager and do the things a good boss would want you to do, whether told to do so or not, the sooner you'll be on your way to being recognized as someone who is ready for more responsibility and authority."
But ultimately, the fate of your career should not be blamed on an absentee boss, Lazzarini says.
"Remember that it takes two to tango. If you see your career, your department or your organization on the way to going down in flames because your boss is too hands-off, don't just stand there and watch. Step up, and invite the dialogue."

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