by: Sara Stibitz
It’s nice when your boss trusts you. But some managers let you have such a long leash that they don’t know what you’re really doing or can’t provide the feedback you need. Worse yet, it’s difficult to tactfully request more involvement without pushing your boss further away. How do you work with a manager who is too hands-off? And if she resists, is it possible to get what you want from her in other ways, or from someone else?
What the Experts Say
Having a passive boss can be a frustrating experience. “They don’t know the details, they don’t want to know the details, and they don’t follow up. You might wonder what they do all day long,” says Jean-Francois Manzoni, a management professor at INSEAD and author of The Set-Up to Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail. Many bosses don’t give enough direction, provide feedback on your work, or fight for the resources you need. “Of course, people like to feel trusted and depended on, but there are drawbacks: you may not get the recognition or appreciation you need,” says Annie McKee, cofounder of Teleos Leadership Institute and author of several books on leadership, including Primal Leadership. Your boss may not be a bad person or even an incompetent manager. “Too many managers are just too busy to manage well,” she says. Whatever the reason for your boss’s hands-off approach, you don’t have to accept it. Here’s some advice on how to get what you need from an overly passive manager.
Start with you
First things first: ask yourself why your boss isn’t giving you as much support as you’d like. Are you the sole person who feels alienated, or is it the entire team? “If the only person not getting support is you, you might be the cause of the disconnect,” says Manzoni. When people don’t get what they want from their boss, it can cause disenchantment, resentment, and cynicism — emotions that are hard to hide. If you’re annoyed and irritated with your boss, it’s going to show whether you use the words or not. “If we work together regularly, I will know that you think I’m a schmuck. And if that happens, you won’t be getting more attention from me,” says Manzoni. Try to look objectively at the situation so you’re not placing all the blame on your boss when you may be contributing to the problem.
Negative labels change the dynamic of the relationship and affect the way you look at working with your boss. Manzoni worked with a client who aggravated a situation by labeling her boss a “slacker” and a “schmoozer.” She didn’t call him names to his face but this was how she thought of him. “This lady was the task-focused, industrious type, while he focused on fostering relationships,” says Manzoni. “She believed she was doing all of the work.” Manzoni helped her realize her boss was working in a different way; he used his extensive network to benefit their team. No matter how frustrated you feel, don’t label your boss. Doing so only reinforces your frustration and diminishes your ability to see your boss’s work from a positive angle. Instead, focus on the helpful aspects of your boss’s leadership. “If your boss is capable of managing up, and has a great network, and if he can share those resources with you, then enjoy it,” he says. No one is hands-off 100% of the time so appreciate your manager’s different leadership styles.
You can manage your frustration by seeing things from your boss’s perspective. Are these his natural tendencies, or is something pushing him to be more distant than usual, like stress? By putting yourself in your leader’s shoes, you’ll be able to better understand the reasons for his behavior — and you’ll be better prepared to respond.
Then try giving your boss what you want. “If you feel you’re missing support or appreciation, find opportunities to appreciate your boss in private and public,” McKee says. It’s not necessary to fawn, but find real reasons to appreciate their efforts and what they do well. Give them recognition for what they’ve helped the group achieve. “When people are treated that way, they often start reciprocating,” says McKee.
Focus on your needs
“If you approach your boss with aggression or anger, you’re just going to push him or her into a corner; they’ll become defensive, angry, and they’ll feel ‘less than’ as opposed to valued by you,” McKee explains. Before you address the issue with your boss, redefine the situation. “When you say ‘I want to approach my boss because they’re too hands-off,’ you’ve already judged this person,” says Manzoni. Reframe it as having a conversation about your needs, and be prepared to define exactly the kind of support you’re seeking. Are you looking for a weekly call, a monthly meeting, or quicker email responses? When you have the conversation, make it a two-way interaction and find out what your boss needs as well. Assure her that you’re committed to her and share what you like about her management approach. “Then she knows that you understand the good side of her style, and that you’re just asking for a little more in one area,” Manzoni says. That puts your boss in an open frame of mind, and then it’s just a question of whether she can give you what you want or not.
Know when to move on
There’s a fine line between being persistent and being stubborn. “Ask once, twice; if you see no progress or movement, it’s time to accept how they are as a leader,” says Manzoni. Recognize that there are times you’ll be in a situation where you won’t get what you need, no matter what you do. “When that happens, you have three choices: change how you feel about it, get your needs met elsewhere, and if you’re really unhappy, find a different job with a different boss,” says McKee. Find another person within your organization who can mentor and support you.
Step into leadership
In some cases it might be time for you to step up and take the lead. “In the best case, a hands-off boss will at least set the direction and provide an inspiring vision” before moving out of the way, says McKee. “This can be powerful and motivating for many people.” Look for ways to take on responsibility that will lighten your boss’s load, and to support those around you, especially if they’re experiencing the same lack of leadership. Having a hands-off boss can be a blessing in disguise as it might be just the opportunity you need to fill the void in leadership. And when others, including your manager, recognize that you’re doing that, you may well be rewarded.
Principles to Remember:
- Examine your own part in the disconnect between you and your leader
- Practice empathy and try to understand the situation from their point of view
- Seize the opportunity to step up and take responsibility
- Label your boss with negative monikers — understand there may be reasons for his behavior
- Approach with accusations — make it a two-way conversation about mutual support
- Harp on the situation — know when to move on and seek support elsewhere
Case Study #1: Adjust your approach to get what you need
William Powers works with a bitcoin crypto currency company and is responsible for raising investor capital. William and Jon, the CEO of the company, work remotely and communicate mostly by email. When they first started working together, William sent Jon long emails loaded with detailed information and questions about the software application developments. “Jon would respond, but he wouldn’t give me with answers,” says William. The less Jon said in his emails, the more William felt frustrated. It was hard to hide his irritation and he began to subtly point out that Jon lacked a clear vision and failed to communicate. Jon eventually stopped answering his emails altogether.
William looked at his own behavior within their relationship and realized he needed to adjust the way he communicated. He saw that his boss was busy and didn’t have time to wade through long emails and composing thorough responses. So rather than harping on the lack of updates or direction, William began formatting his emails to include one action item. Then he listed his questions — never more than two at a time. “I made it exceedingly simple and easy to respond to my questions. Essentially, I was selling him on answering the email,” jokes William.
After William changed the way he communicated, Jon’s leadership style became much less of a problem for him. “He answered questions much more quickly, and I was able to take the information he provided and use it to raise capital with investors and gain media attention,” says William. Their relationship improved, as well. “It wasn’t like night and day, but it was a big improvement.”
Case Study #2: Fill the leadership void
Kyle Scifert served as a staff sergeant in an Army military police company during the initial invasion of Iraq. He was in charge of leading 11 enlisted soldiers and turned to his supervisor, platoon leader Natalie (not her real name), for guidance when preparing for missions. But he didn’t get the guidance he wanted. “She made the assignment, but failed to give any feedback about potential issues or how to complete the mission,” he explains. His requests for more information went unmet and Kyle often felt he was unprepared. To make matters worse, Natalie criticized every one of his decisions during his debriefing. His team started to suffer from the overall lack of leadership; morale was low, and his team members didn’t feel confident in the mission.
Kyle realized it was time to step up. Instead of seeking Natalie’s guidance to prepare for missions, he took matters into his own hands. “I started doing as much research as I could on each mission, and then I shared that research with other squad leaders,” says Kyle. As a result, he was much better prepared for each mission and began to stand out as a leader; in fact, other staff sergeants came to him for guidance about their own missions.
At first, Natalie wasn’t pleased that he was taking this initiative, but it wasn’t long before they reached a new level of respect for one another. “It was difficult at times, but eventually she recognized that I had stepped up as a leader and credited that initiative,” says Kyle. Natalie recommended him for officer school, and he went on to become an officer. “It didn’t necessarily change her behavior,” says Kyle, “but it lead me to become a better leader.”
About the Author
Sara Stibitz is a freelance writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to the Harvard Business Review, she has written for the Des Moines Register, YogaIowa, Juice, Spoilage Literary Magazine, and other publications.
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