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Dealing with the "No-Boss Boss"

So what is a “bad” boss? Essentially, any boss who is difficult and hard to deal with or who has trouble directing and guiding employees to effectively do the work can qualify as a bad boss.

One of the most frustrating kinds of bad bosses is the boss who really isn’t there: the “no-boss boss.” This is the opposite of the overly aggressive, controlling, or micromanaging boss. It’s the boss who manages by not managing; the leader who leads by not leading. This boss often does not make decisions and lets things ride until someone else has to make the decision. He’s a boss who often does not know what is going on and depends on subordinates to know. In short, this boss may have the title, but in fact has left the ship without a captain. As a result, management and leadership by default fall onto the employees. But this is not the same as a self-managed team, where team members have a clear idea of what they are doing, know who’s in charge, understand the limits of their authority, and set their goals and tasks to get there. Instead, there is more of a sense of muddling along and filling in because the boss’s lack of management has created a leadership vacuum.

How does a boss end up in or continue in this position? One common way is when a person with technical expertise gets promoted into management, yet is still making a good technical contribution. The person may even continue to be supported by upper-level management because of his contributions as a technical expert. As long as the boss has an assistant or other employees who can pick up the management/leadership slack, the situation can continue.

While some employees might welcome the freedom and autonomy of a boss who is missing in action, this situation often leaves employees frustrated and uncertain about what’s going on. Additionally, some nonmanagerial employees taking on the management role might come to feel resentment and think they are underpaid, since they have in fact become the managers.

Case Study: Corinne
Corinne worked as an assistant to a boss at a large company that created software for games. In her division, about 40 employees worked on software development. Her boss, Ben, reported to one of two company vice presidents. Though Corrine had been in her job for three years, she found it frustrating because Ben made no decisions. He only paid attention to his own projects, creating his own programs.

In most cases, Ben simply rubber-stamped everyday decisions that Corinne made herself. Typically, his input would be, “That’s fine. That’s a good idea.” And Corrine would go ahead and do it.

The office operated this way for three years, with Ben essentially taking a hands-off approach to management while Corrine filled in the gaps. Perhaps she should have been aware that such an arrangement might be the case when Ben first hired her. He had just been hired from another company, and he told Corrine her job would be to run the office. Although she didn’t know a lot of the technical terms for the software products being developed, Ben left it to her to pick up whatever she needed to know on her own. He also left it largely up to her to figure out what her job should be and left her alone to do whatever it was, with little idea about or interest in what that might be. After Corrine was there for several months, Ben asked her to make a list of what she did. When she turned in a four-page list of job activities, he looked at her in amazement, and said: “Damn. I didn’t know you did all that. Keep up the good work.” Then he went back to work on one of his projects.

While Ben had an open-door policy and invited Corrine or any employee to come to see him, the discussions had relatively little effect. According to Corrine, “He knows what we would all like: some more direction or guidance from him. But he doesn’t do that. He can make a decision and doesn’t know what’s going on himself.”

So, by default, people in the office came to Corrine for direction and she took over the management role. The situation dragged on for several years. Though Corrine tried several times to get out of that position and be promoted into management or work directly for the vice president, he didn’t make any changes. Corrine got additional raises for staying where she was, so she was very well paid as an administrative assistant. The vice president told her, “You’re the glue that holds everything together.” So he wanted her to keep doing what she had been doing, rather than promoting her.

When faced with an upcoming corporate merger, Corrine decided to ride out the situation to see what would happen. She suspected that Ben wouldn’t make it through the merger, so another higher-level position might be in the cards for the future.

What should Corrine do? Some possibilities:
  • Insist on getting a higher management title, not just more money, if you are going to be taking on a management role.
  • Continue to make the decisions and don’t worry about keeping Ben informed unless he asks, since he will generally rubber-stamp whatever you do.
  • Reassure others in the department that you will be making most of the decisions so they don’t feel confused and frustrated.
  • Don’t be concerned about not knowing the technical details of the work because many managers are hired for their skill in managing people, not their technical knowledge.
  • Since the vice president feels your role in keeping the department going is critical, be firm when you ask to be transferred into another position. He will realize he needs to do this, or you will leave.
  • Keep doing what you are doing and wait for the merger, since you will probably be staying on and Ben will be gone. Then you can figure out what to do.
  • Gather others from the department to join and schedule a meeting with Ben to emphasize that you need him to provide more direction, decisions, and information so the department will be more productive and people will better understand and feel more committed to what they are doing.

The best plan for Corrine
In this case, you would probably do well to keep doing what you are doing, but learn to be more accepting so you feel comfortable with the situation. It seems clear that Ben is not suited to or capable of being a good manager. He is a technical expert; this is what he likes to do and is good at, and he does not have the kind of people and managerial or leadership skills needed for good management.

It won’t be productive to talk to him about doing anything differently. Ben probably can’t or doesn’t want to change, so there’s no use trying. At the same time, the office seems to be thriving under your leadership, even though people are frustrated and confused by the lack of clarity. Thus, it might be good to clarify with others in the department what you are doing, so they expect to come to you for answers and decisions. It may be less necessary to include Ben in the loop on many of these decisions, since he doesn’t seem to know or care about what is going on.

As for the management title, you may have to let that go for the time being, since the vice president seems inclined to trust you to do the job but doesn’t want to rock the boat. Once the merger is finalized, this may be the time to push for a formal promotion into a management position that reflects what you are actually doing. And there’s no need to worry about knowing the technicalities of software development and coding, since you have 40 people in the department who know about those things. What they need from you are your management and leadership skills, not your knowledge about software.

In short, it would seem like a win-win situation for everyone if you were to continue taking over the management/leadership vacuum left by Ben’s lack of interest in this role. Make it clearer to the other employees and yourself that this is what you are doing, and you will feel less frustrated and uncertain about what you are doing yourself. As long as upper management knows what is going on and rewards you for your efforts, you can probably count on a promotion sometime in the future.

Take-aways from Corrine’s story:

  • If there’s a management vacuum, you can fill it yourself; after all, nature abhors a vacuum.
  • If you have a boss who isn’t acting like a boss, it may be because he really doesn’t want to be a boss and would really rather just be a technical expert.
  • If you’re a better manager or leader than your boss, then go do it; in the long run, you will be recognized as a manager and a leader, too.
  • If your boss is making no decisions, that is a decision to continue the status quo. If that’s not what you want, seek to make the decision yourself so you are better able to get what you want.

© 2006 All rights reserved. Adapted from A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-Stabbers, and Other Managers from Hell, by Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., published by AMACOM, a division of the American Management Association, http://www.amacombooks.org