Leadership effectiveness is of paramount importance in 2021, as most organizations continue to operate remotely with virtual teams. Crises such as the current pandemic act as a litmus test for leaders, with effective leaders rising to the challenges of guiding their organization through hardship, and ineffective leaders unravelling under pressure.

Personality is a robust predictor of job performance and a key driver of leadership effectiveness, with a common distinction made between ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’ leadership. The ‘bright side’ of personality describes normal, day-to-day personality characteristics which drive constructive leadership, like Ambition and Sociability. The ‘dark side’ of personality, as measured by the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), identifies 11 personality characteristics that cause career derailment and drive destructive leadership, such as being untrusting or taking extreme risks.

However, constructive and destructive are not the only leaders companies must look out for. Leaders who are neither constructive nor destructive, otherwise known as absentee leaders, pose a far greater risk to your organization, particularly in the age of remote work.

               What is an absentee leader?

Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management and enjoy the privileges and rewards of their leadership role but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams.

A critical difference between absentee leaders and destructive, dark-side leaders is that the latter are easier for organizations to identify. Dark-side traits become visible when a leader is under stress or lets their guard-down, and this generally results in poor employee relationships and career derailment. For example, highly diligent leaders are perfectionists in their approach and tend to complete most tasks themselves as opposed to delegating work amongst their team, resulting in slowed productivity and micro-managing.

While dark-side leaders can cause great havoc and destruction within their organizations, one advantage for organizations is that they can be identified easily using valid personality assessment. Absentee leaders, however, do not cause trouble in the same way – because they do not do anything – and therefore fly under the radar, making it harder for organizations to single them out. However, research has shown that absentee leaders cause even more damage for businesses in the long run, leading experts at Hogan to aptly describe them as ‘the silent killers of an organization’.

               The consequences of absentee leadership

The active avoidance of any leadership behavior has a destructive impact on organizations, stemming from absentee leaders’ non-involvement with their teams. Common behaviors associated with absentee leaders include lack of direction for employees, delayed decisions, lack of performance feedback, lack of rewards, and no attempt to motivate employees. With many companies now operating remotely, the risk of showing up as an absentee leader has increased along with the impacts of this leadership style on employee wellbeing and business outcomes.

Common consequences of absentee leadership for employees include role ambiguity, co-worker conflict, workplace bullying, burnout, and increased intention to leave. Furthermore, absentee leadership negatively impacts employee engagement and job satisfaction, with effects taking longer to appear at first but lasting for up to two years. In comparison, destructive leadership degrades job satisfaction immediately, but this dissipates after about six months. As employees look to their managers for more support and direction while working remotely, absentee leadership will continue to cause great harm for organizations in the longer term if steps are not taken to identify them.

A recent survey carried out by Hogan Assessments, which consisted predominantly of mid-level managers from mid- to large- sized companies across Europe, saw 60% of respondents claim they are receiving adequate support from their manager while working remotely, and over 80% claim that their employer was supportive in their adaptation to remote work.  While this presents a positive picture for many organizations throughout Europe, those that are struggling with poor engagement as a result of absentee leadership can take several steps to improve.

               How not to be an absentee leader?

A tell-tale sign of an absentee leader is one who is uncommunicative and uninvolved with their team. With many employees feeling isolated and under heightened stress, it is important that leaders are present with employees every step of the way while working remotely, building relationships of trust and open communication.

It is also important that leaders deliberately show their own vulnerability when building these relationships. Sharing your own thoughts and feelings may encourage your employees to share theirs, which will deepen relationships amongst the teams in ways that are beneficial now and in the future. Initiate calls with them and work to make these calls personal by sharing personal details, experiences, and aspirations.  Being vulnerable and open with employees is a key ingredient to effective leadership – building trust.

In addition, absentee leaders provide little direction, delayed decisions and an overall lack of feedback and involvement. They fail to act in setting a productive culture that keeps teams engaged and motivated towards collective goals, which is more important now than ever. To provide constructive leadership in the virtual workplace, leaders should overcommunicate their availability and communication preferences to the team and welcome day-to-day contact from their employees. This way, leaders can provide clear goals and objectives, motivate team members, and facilitate open conversations about engagement and wellbeing.

               The bottom line

Senior management rarely observes absentee leadership in action, mainly because it is difficult to spot immediately. Companies must pay close attention to employee engagement data and complaints about conflict or bullying, as these are clear indicators of absentee leadership. Our latest survey suggests a positive picture for many European organizations, but for those suffering with absentee leadership, consider blocking a set time each day as “open door time,” during which your team knows that managers are available for a quick question, a needed decision, or to address a concern. Providing more structure in this way will help set expectations and reassure your team that they can get the timely answers and support they need.

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.