The real cost of the invisible boss

CAROLINE JAMES
Last updated 12:07 13/03/2014

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Is your boss barely there, happy to leave you to it even when workplace crises strike?

We all know managers who struggle to step back from their workers. But what about their opposite number - the invisible manager - who holds the leader's job title but contributes little in the way of direction, mentorship or motivation?

Aloof bosses can be just as costly to businesses as their micro-managing brethren, warn workplace relations experts.

"You risk losing employee engagement, which can quickly turn into disengagement," says corporate leadership expert Philip Owens, of Resourced Leaders.

"If workers are not getting what they want they can start talking to people at the pub or on Facebook and saying 'don't go near that person'; it can quickly become toxic and threaten your business's brand."

Steve Shepherd, Randstad group director, says "we know people join companies but leave management".

The head of the Australian division of the multinational human resources giant says businesses with bosses who are habitually missing in action will bear big bottom-line costs associated with losing valued employees, losing customer relationships and replacing staff members.

"There are various ways to quantify 'cost' but, yes, we are talking thousands and thousands of dollars' extra cost if a business has management who are disengaged," Shepherd says.

ALWAYS DISTRACTED

Sally Foley-Lewis once had a boss who was actively looking for another job and therefore always distracted.

Foley-Lewis says the man "wasn't particularly hands off" initially but became more distant over the next year.

Today she works independently as a management trainer, speaker, coach and author.

"I could see over the months that I worked with him, his increasing disengagement ... it was like he always had one foot out the door mentally," she says.

"I ended up asking him directly what was going on and he did admit to me, yes, I am unhappy and ready to go.

"Now I don't think that is something that will always be appropriate to ask, it may not be career enhancing, but if you do clearly see change in a manager's behaviour, knowing the root cause can often help you to manage the effects that this hands-off management style is having on you."

Of course, one person's dark management cloud is another's silver-lined career opportunity, says Peter Acheson.

The chief executive of IT&T recruitment company Peoplebank recalls working with a disengaged boss at telecommunications company Optus in the 1990s. It ended up fast-tracking his career.

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"I was in a pretty senior role and could see opportunities to promote our division and to shine in my own role," Acheson says.

"He [the former boss] trusted me and basically said 'yes, look go for it' so I did, I got promoted in 2000."

Acheson says if he still had a hands-off boss, he would "see it as a great opportunity for a go-getter employee".

"My rule of how to succeed in companies is to always do more than is expected of you, particularly if you have a disengaged boss because they are often not doing those expected tasks themselves," he says. "It hands you your chance to shine."

Tips for surviving and thriving if your boss is disengaged

  • First ask yourself what it is that the boss does/or doesn't do that makes them appear aloof?
  • Is it just your opinion or is it a view held by all workers of this boss?
  • How is this behaviour affecting the business?
  • Start self-managing where possible; think of yourself as a mini-business.
  • You don't need "manager" in your job title to effect management-like changes.
  • Set the boundaries by establishing polices that enable you to progress projects.
  • Use email for updates, reports and requests so you can easily demonstrate your progress.
  • Manage your own development by building networks/mentors and skills development if possible.
  • Protect yourself by demanding periodic meetings with your boss, agreeing to your key performance indicators, which you put in writing and circulate to your boss.
  • Catch the eye of executive management by taking on projects for your boss's boss.
  • Try to stay actively engaged with your job and drive your own agenda; it is usually noticed higher up.
  • Just because your boss has disengaged from their own role, don't disengage from them; their aloofness may be temporary and/or their tenure may be short-lived.
  • Don't take it personally, and don't give up.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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