Does it seem like your boss is never around? Is it difficult to track her down? Impossible to schedule a time to meet with him?
Maybe she travels a lot for work or jumps from meeting to meeting. Perhaps he works remotely, takes a lot of vacation time, or is emotionally “checked out.”
“I would say that almost every employee experiences a time when their boss is ‘absent,’” says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs. “And that’s when the truth comes out about how dedicated and valuable you are as an employee.”
Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, president of Humor at Work, and author of The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank(Dec. 2013), says with the rise of telecommuting, technology, virtual offices and international business interests, more employees than ever are working in situations where their boss is absent. “This is a trend that’s going to keep growing,” he says.
Lynn Taylor agrees. The national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant says bosses are being stretched in more directions than ever before–and while technology has increased productivity exponentially, “it has also upped the ante for juggling more balls in the air,” she says. “If you have a ‘Where’s Waldo’ boss, technology makes it easier for him to be anywhere but in his office.”
She says today, as managers are still being pressed to do more with less staff, it’s rare for bosses to spend the time needed with employees to yield optimal results. “Often, they’re barely treading water themselves or worse, putting out fires – as they falsely assume their staff needs little input.” But it’s one thing to give employees a lot of latitude, and another to generally be unavailable, “leaving you to endure many false starts on projects; second guess them; approach their next in line; send endless one-way correspondence; and just end up hoping for forgiveness – because asking for permission is not an option.”
Depending on the workplace culture, leadership style and team dynamics, the boss’s absence can have either a profoundly negative impact, or an extremely positive impact, Kerr explains. “Micromanaging, over-the-shoulder bosses are hugely stressful on employees. Omnipresent bosses can limit employees’ growth, stifle creativity and smother initiative,” he says. “Conversely, studies show that increase autonomy and control over one’s work is hugely motivating and can lower stress levels – as long as people feel properly supported. An absent boss can therefore be extremely liberating, freeing up people to grow and develop on their own.”
But if an employee feels unsupported and ill-prepared, the absence becomes a negative force, he adds. “If the boss’s absence results in gridlock, for example, because no one feels empowered or confident enough to make a decision, then this can impact everyone’s work negatively. New employees can feel frustrated, even abandoned, if the boss has not adequately trained them and communicated crystal clear expectations.”
Sutton Fell says if the team is motivated, passionate, and responsible, and their performance is measured by true productivity rather than just face time, then the boss not being in the office likely won’t affect much. “However, if that’s not true, then the old adage ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse will play’ is more of a real possibility,” she says.
Amanda Abella, a career coach, writer, speaker, and founder of the Gen Y lifestyle blog Grad Meets World, agrees. “Self starters usually don’t need managers around all the time because they can figure out what they need to do. In fact, it may be easier to get stuff done when your boss isn’t around, in some cases. If your boss has a tendency to hover over you they may be constantly interrupting you while you’re trying to get your tasks done. Some employees, however, may prefer to have some point of contact in case they have questions,” she says. “And a new employee would probably benefit from having a bit more leadership.”
If your boss is never around, you may be scrambling for answers to meet a deadline, making it difficult to meet your daily or long-term objectives; or your motivation may sink to rock bottom because it seems as if your work is unimportant, Taylor says. “Your boss may work with you more virtually than in-person, and the onus is on you to capitalize on the form of communication that you do get, whatever form it may be. Being ‘available’ versus not being physically present is a worthy distinction. A virtual video chat on Skype, for example, can take off some of the pressure–but the nuances of one-on-one meetings and their relationship-building aspects are rarely replaceable.”
In an ideal culture, the boss’s absence should have a minimal impact on the day to day ability of a team to perform at its peak, Kerr adds. “The role of a great boss is to give employees the proper tools, training and expectations so that they can perform their work in absence of the boss. Indeed a bad leader is one who holds onto the reins of power and information so tightly that nothing can happen. A lot of it is tied to trust and empowerment. In a culture where high levels of trust have been established, with similarly high levels of empowerment, then there should be no issue around work not getting achieved.”
Here are 12 ways to thrive when the boss is never around:
Communicate. “This can be by phone or e-mail, but take the initiative to regularly check in with your boss on your projects, progress, and any key points that are critical for your job,” Sutton Fell suggests. It’s important to take the initiative to show them how valuable and productive you are, and to ask for feedback.
Kerr says communication becomes more important than ever with an absent boss. “Keep your boss in the loop, but know where the line is between too much information and enough to ensure things run smoothly. Set simple expectations with your boss around communication: How often? Preferred method (phone, in person, e-mail, Skype)? What does the boss really need to know and what do you need to be kept informed on from the boss?”
Find out what’s on the front burner. Your boss may be involved in a critical project that commands all her attention – and you might be able to help, Taylor says. “Your boss may not have thought of applying you as a resource towards it. This way, you’re offering assistance where it may be needed most; you stand a better chance of getting some attention on your own assignments; your boss may see you as more indispensable than before; will likely appreciate that you can see the bigger picture; and at least value your offer to volunteer your time.”
Always be one step ahead of the game. “Don’t wait until your boss tells you to do something – especially if it’s something that gets done on a pretty regular basis,” Abella says. Just go ahead and do it!
Be clear on your own expectations for coaching and feedback. Kerr says if your boss is chronically away, you need to communicate to your boss how much and how frequently you need feedback to feel comfortable doing your work at its best level.
“Help your boss see the value of feedback,” Taylor adds. “It’s the tried and true positive reinforcement approach. Thank your boss when he does give you feedback, and let him know in specific terms how it helped you after a successful assignment. That will be reinforce the behavior you need.”
Be organized. Since your boss’s availability has become a central issue, your organizational skills have to take center stage, Taylor says. “Make sure that every contact with your manager is clear, concise and thorough. Don’t keep returning with follow up questions, and instead think long-term and strategically to ensure alignment. Think: What might go wrong? Do we agree on solutions?”
Ask questions. Asking your boss questions such as, “What can I do to support you and the team in your absence?” will help instill trust and confidence in your abilities, Kerr says.
You’ll also want to ask how much latitude you have, Taylor adds. “Request a sit-down with your boss to discuss your communications level, the potential for weekly meetings, status reports and feedback. But also ask about how much latitude you have in his absence. Give hypothetical examples of situations where she’s absent (which might be a subtle hint) and your response. Ask if you have authority to take action. If not, get his suggestions on appropriate steps of approval. If your boss is engaged in the solution, you’re likely to succeed together as a team.”
Another good question: May I approach others in your absence? “There may be a second in command or an assistant through which you can get your work approved or ultimately accomplished,” Taylor says. “It may be a vice president or director, or even his administrative assistant with whom your boss is in touch several times a day.”
Step up to the plate. “If your boss isn’t around, they probably trust you enough to make sure you don’t burn down the building,” Abella says. “It’s not a time to second guess everything; it’s a time to step up and show your boss you don’t need to be babied.”
Kerr agrees. He says you should take extra initiative without overstepping your role.
“This is the perfect opportunity to step up and demonstrate your own leadership skills and to show that you can perform without someone watching over your shoulder. At the same time, you need to be cautious that you’re not overstepping and potentially alienating your boss who may feel threatened. Every time the boss is away is a chance for you to prove yourself and build long term trust so that you can gain even more autonomy over time.”
Seek out mentors. It’s important to build relationships with people in your company who you can help you when you need it, whether it’s to stay motivated or to solve a problem, Sutton Fell says.
Don’t complain; do inquire. Rather than complain or stew about the situation, which might get back to your boss, ask your manager directly if there is an issue, Taylor suggests. “But do so in a constructive, nonthreatening way. Make sure you focus on the fact that you want your time to be productive and your work to yield the best results.”
Take good notes. “Keep good notes, both for your sake and your boss’s,” Kerr says. The onus is on you to make sure all of your work, your decisions, questions, and how your time was spent, are adequately recorded so the misunderstandings are kept to a minimum.
“At my former company we never went anywhere without notebooks,” Abella adds. “Since my boss was never around we had to take very detailed notes whenever we spoke to her.”
Build a strong team. In the absence of the boss, team employees need to know they can trust each other and turn to each other for guidance, Kerr says. “Small cracks in a team’s foundation can become huge crevasses when the boss is away.”
Don’t take it personally. Being ignored is no fun, but it’s important to remember that your boss’s absence may have nothing to do with you; there may just be too many demands on him during a certain period, and his hope is that you’ll be a self-starter, Taylor explains. “Focus on doing your best work as you seek avenues to resolve the situation.”
There’s no one correct approach for dealing with an absent boss, Taylor says. “You have to try multiple approaches, and also be ready to change them. No boss is perfect, but if you can get the best out of the latitude you’re given and mitigate the mystery, you can still thrive with a Houdini boss,” she concludes.
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