Emotional disengagement or absentee leadership is not only the most common but possibly the most destructive type of problematic leader behavior, according to a recent article by Scott Gregory in the Harvard Business Review. But it rarely draws the attention it deserves, either from managers or the business literature. These leaders are remote, uninterested and laissez-faire. Those who report to them are frustrated and thwarted by a lack of input and direction.
Gregory points out that as destructive as these types of leaders can be, the absence of overt behaviors often allows them to fly under the radar of their superiors for a long time.
In a sense, the absentee leader occupies a negative space. It is always harder to see, confront, understand and take action about something that is not there than something you can wrap your hands around.
With my medical background, I tend to think of problem sequences as case identification, diagnosis and treatment. Gregory sounded an important alert about case identification. It’s too easy to be consumed by the problems created by noisily disruptive leaders and not find time to attend to those exhibiting indifference and neglect. Managers need to consciously search out instances of leaders who are disengaged.
Once you overcome the barriers to identifying absentee leadership, what do you do? The next two steps after identification are 1) diagnosis and 2) an action plan.
1. Diagnosis: What are the Causes of Absentee Leadership?
This phase of the problem-solving sequence is important because the action senior management needs to take will be quite different depending on the cause.
The first question to ask is whether the behavior is new or has the leader always behaved this way. The leader who was emotionally engaged and active until four months ago presents an entirely different problem from one who has been indifferent or disengaged since, well, anyone can remember.
What causes emotional absenteeism of sudden or recent onset in a previously fully engaged leader?
Substance abuse. I have been impressed with how rarely this possibility is considered when managers are trying to figure out the cause of behavioral changes in a company leader. It’s the number one issue to rule out when looking for the cause of a significant change in personality or behavior, particularly emotional absenteeism. You’re not likely to see a leader struggling with alcohol abuse show up at work drunk. Instead, there will be a pattern of coming in late, not returning calls, failing to follow up, apparent indifference and perpetual excuses.
Serious physical or mental health problems. Serious depression can cause emotional absenteeism in a previously appropriately engaged leader. So can receiving a diagnosis of a significant medical illness, which he may want to keep private in the work environment.
Overwhelming personal crisis at home. Many problems people have—a marital crisis, an opioid-addicted child, a major financial setback—are things they don’t want to bring to work. They struggle to do their job in spite of the stress and want to keep their troubles to themselves. The leader hiding significant personal problems tends to isolate himself (after all, he’s holding on to a lot of secrets) and is understandably preoccupied.
What causes absenteeism in a person who has “always been this way”?
The leader who wants to engage but doesn’t know how. A lot of good leadership practice doesn’t come naturally to a great many people—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t teachable. Individuals who are especially introverted or tend to “live in their heads” may simply not have a template in their minds about how and when to engage. They also might miss or misinterpret social cues from a team member who wants more involvement and oversight.
The leader who likes to work but finds leadership stressful. We tend to share a belief that “everyone” wants to move up—to be promoted to the next level of responsibility. Some people, however, are very content doing a complex task but emotionally fall apart when given leadership responsibility. I know of one individual who functioned extremely well in an analyst position but when he was promoted to manager of a group of analysts he withdrew and became depressed.
The leader who just doesn’t care. Yes, there are lazy, self-centered, irresponsible people in the world and sometimes for one reason or another, they are not found out until they are promoted to a leadership position with critical responsibility. Sometimes charm covers up shortcomings or they employ a high level of skill at obfuscation, excuse-making and diversionary tactics.
In his book A Higher Loyalty, former FBI Director James Comey identified a cadre of absentee leaders when he arrived at the bureau: people who had become leaders “to escape a job they weren’t doing well or people being promoted by their bosses to get rid of them.” (Comey’s book, if you haven’t read it, is much more a reflection on leadership than an exposé of his dealings with Clinton or Trump and a worthwhile read from a leadership development perspective.)
2. Treatment: What to Do About the Absentee Leader
When the behavior represents a change from a previous high level of functioning as a leader
The leader’s superior needs to engage her in an empathic but confrontational discussion. I say “confrontational” because, especially in the case of substance abuse, you’re going to get a lot of denial and excuses. It’s also important for the problematic leader’s boss to do some collateral research beforehand. Talk to the disengaged leader’s team members and ask them if they have any ideas about the behavior change. Specifically, mention the possibilities of alcoholism or mental or medical illnesses. These are things people don’t want to talk about and they need to be encouraged to share what they know without feeling like tattle-tales.
What happens next after this necessary (and usually awkward) conversation is dependent on the individual situation but may include such actions as a substance abuse intervention or a leave of absence to deal with health problems.
When the behavior has been present throughout the leader’s tenure as leader
Offer coaching to the leader for whom the skills of engagement don’t come naturally.
Reassign the natural born analyst or content developer back to the type of work he or she does best. Free them from the interpersonal demands of management that they are not suited for.
Be open to the possibility that an absentee leader may just not care and that his indifference, passivity, entitlement and laziness have been overlooked previously or that at other levels of responsibility his weaknesses just didn’t show. Obviously, take your time arriving at this conclusion. After appropriate due diligence and attempts at coaching, the only option is to consider termination.
Gregory, in his article, reminded us to reverse the “squeaky wheel cliché.” Pay attention to the person who is making no noise whatsoever. Never disruptive? Never seeking consultation? Never making mistakes? Look out for actively absentee leaders and treat this as a serious problem. Then go through the steps of diagnosis—what is the cause—and develop an appropriate response and action plan.
Prudy Gourguechon is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises leaders in business and finance on the underlying psychology of critical decisions. For more visit www.invantageadvising.com.