Even during the best of times, research shows that absentee leadership is quite common and destructive to teams and organizations. What’s an absentee leader? One who displays neither actively positive leadership nor actively negative leadership; an absentee leader seems uninvolved and uncommunicative. For leaders whose teams are all working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of showing up as an absentee leader increases, even for leaders who typically are engaged with their teams in the office.
Employees whose leaders are absentee report less direction, delayed decisions, and a lack of feedback and involvement. Role ambiguity results, along with decreased job satisfaction, higher intentions to leave, and added conflicts with co-workers. Add to that the increased stress of the pandemic, and negative outcomes for organizations and employees could be exponentially increased.
Communication is key. There are many readily available tips for managers regarding the common pitfalls resulting from virtual distance between workers and leaders. There are also many useful aids for communicating more effectively with remote teams. A focus on communication undoubtedly is critical for managers at all times, especially now.
However, absentee leadership is about the impact of a manager’s engagement (or lack thereof) with his/her work and team. Hogan’s research reveals five key indicators of absentee leadership. Each of these provides clues on what managers can do to avoid falling into the trap of developing a reputation as an absentee leader, even as they are forced to work and lead remotely.
1. Motivation for leadership.
If you are a manager who is feeling relieved that you don’t have to interact face-to-face for a while, that might be a danger sign. To avoid letting contact diminish, schedule quick check-in calls with team members more frequently than you normally would. Having scheduled check-ins will help provide the discipline needed to ensure that your sense of relief doesn’t mean that you are providing less leadership. Ensure you are focused on providing guidance, coaching, and performance feedback. Have a clear agenda for your calls with individual team members.
2. Lack of engagement with the team.
This one may seem obvious, but overcommunicate your availability and communication preferences to the team. Let them know you are still here to help. Consider blocking a set time each day as “open door time,” during which your team knows you 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 they need.
3. Lack of general career engagement.
Some leaders may be experiencing an existential struggle about whether their current job or even career is the right one for them. During this unusual time, however, try to focus on the greater good. Your team is counting on you, so try to set aside personal concerns and focus on supporting your team. Focusing your energy on them right now may help you find an increased sense of purpose.
4. Lacking effort to motivate and inspire.
In normal, in-office times, you may have regular staff meetings. If so, research shows that they probably aren’t very effective or efficient. That can be especially true for virtual team meetings, so it is critical to have a crisp agenda that is shared in advance, timebound topics, and clear decisions and owners as the meeting closes. These things will help instill a sense of productivity and purpose for the team, even as the world around them seems to be changing by the moment. In addition, it may be useful to schedule a team meeting here and there just as a time for team members to decompress. Everyone is under increased stress and perhaps isolation. It may help your team for you to be deliberately vulnerable in some ways, to share your thoughts and questions and to encourage theirs. While you may not get to answers, this may deepen relationships on the team in ways that are beneficial now and in the future. You may think this is just “soft stuff,” but actually it is about a key ingredient to effective leadership – building trust.
5. Lacking persistence for driving better outcomes.
Undoubtedly, some workers will see this remote-working time as an opportunity to slack off. Most, however, are likely to be looking for ways to be highly productive and to help their companies come out of this crisis in a strong position. This is where listening becomes especially important for leaders. Think about ways to engage your team in discussions about actions that may be different from their typical work, but that might be even more productive now. Look for ways to engage your team in making process improvements, increasing efficiencies, cutting costs, or doing business in new ways. You don’t have to have the answers; it likely is more important to ask questions, listen, and to engage the team in shared ownership of driving better outcomes despite abnormal circumstances.
The current situation is a test for the effectiveness of leaders and their teams. As always, evaluate the strength of your leadership by the effectiveness of your team. The above five points will help ensure that you develop and sustain a reputation for being an engaged, effective leader, even during this unprecedented period in which we are suddenly required to work differently. Remember to communicate frequently, create additional structure, actively support more frequently than usual, and listen to and leverage the power of your team.