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Absentee leadership is rife – but how can HR detect it?

There is no shortage of news about business leaders whose destructive behaviour led to epic business collapse. These stories are consistent with the scientific evidence that leaders who are erratic, overconfident, self-promoting, manipulative, deceitful and eccentrically unrealistic ruin organisations.

These kinds of behaviours make for great stories. However, deep inside organisations, a more insidious problem exists: the problem of absentee leadership.

Absentee leaders are those who have been promoted to leadership roles – typically middle management – but do not do any actual leading. These 'leaders' enjoy all the privileges of leadership but are largely uninvolved, even actively disengaged, with their teams.

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Even worse, they often serve as roadblocks for performance improvement and organisational progress by simply refusing to take action or to elevate organisational problems to a higher level. Their staff become frustrated, alienated and disengaged, and many will opt for different roles within the organisation or leave altogether.

But what makes absentee leadership particularly problematic is its insidious nature. Unlike the problems associated with grandiose and destructive leadership, absentee leadership is much harder to detect.

From the perspective of those outside the organisation, outside the team or even at the top of the organisation, absentee leaders seem quite capable. Because absentee leaders create roadblocks for their staff and avoid dealing with difficult issues, senior leadership often see absentee leaders as easy to manage and effective leaders. Of course, their teams know otherwise, but their voice is often squelched by the absentee leader or ignored by senior leaders who are more focused on higher-priority matters.

In this regard, absentee leadership is like a small water leak in a pipe under your house, slowly eroding the foundation while everyone is focused on a new paint colour for the exterior walls. When undetected for too long, absentee leadership washes away the organisation’s foundation.

But even this analogy does not fully capture the problem because research shows that absentee leadership is far more commonplace than its destructive counterpart. For a large organisation, it is more appropriate to say that absentee leadership is like a small leak in many of the pipes under your house, greatly increasing the rate of disengagement and alienation.

Just as with leaky pipes, the key to resolving absentee leadership is detection. One way to identify absentee leaders is to ask their subordinates about them, in a confidential manner wherein subordinates will not fear reprisal.

Unfortunately, even under the most optimal circumstances employees can be reluctant to say negative things about their boss. An alternative to absentee leadership detection is through the use of scientific assessments designed to identify patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving linked to absentee leadership.

Once identified, organisations can either move the person to an individual contributor role or try to eliminate the absentee leader habits through coaching and feedback.

Given the prevalence of absentee leadership and its harmful effects, organisations should be on the lookout for these problems. However, an eye towards potential absentee leadership from top management teams is not enough.

Absentee leadership, by its very nature, is difficult to detect. Feedback from subordinates or scientific assessments is the most assured way to identify absentee leaders.


Ryne A. Sherman is chief science officer at Hogan Assessments