When you first hear the word “absentee,” you probably go to “absentee fathers” — common societal topic, covered often by right-leaning media and, apparently, Goop — or “absentee voting/ballot,” because that’s about to become a big USA theme in November.
You may not jump to “absentee management,” but it’s a significant problem once described as the “silent killer of companies.” I think you can inherently figure out what an “absentee manager” is, but let me give you a quick example if I may.
A few years ago, I went to a mini-conference for recruiting in Arlington, VA. I had to be there at 7am to set up. Most employees of the place hosting it got there around 8:30am. As the conference is starting up, I notice this guy, maybe mid-40s, who gets to work at 9:15am. He leaves again, with seemingly a gym bag, at 10am. He comes back around 11:20. He leaves again at 12pm. He comes back at 1:30. He leaves again at 2:15, telling some people “Off to get the kids.”
I asked someone who worked there and, funnily enough, he was the “VP of Product.”
If you add the in-office time, he was probably at work about 1 hour or so max … and now maybe this guy burns the midnight oil or is excellent at providing context on email. Awesome. So maybe projects are moving along (good), but I doubt very few who report into this guy feel like they have a strong connection to him or career development possibilities or whatever else.
I could be wrong, but I bet I’m not.
I’ve had many bosses like this. I had a guy at ESPN, not my direct boss but on a bunch of work projects, who repeatedly called me “Andy.” My name is Ted. You didn’t even get the first letter right. So if you’re doing that constantly, do I assume you care? Do I want to work hard for you?
Now, obviously there’s a counter argument
If you’re getting a paycheck in corporate-style work, you need to respect hierarchy — and if hierarchy can’t remember your name, you need to grin and bear it if you want to keep getting that paycheck. I feel you. It’s not wrong. It’s not nuanced but it’s not wrong either.
This applies in the personal too. I am an acquired taste as a person because I think about some core life issues differently than some people do. So, every time I’ve been in a long-term romantic relationship, I am dating someone who has 1 (often more) friends who dislikes me. I’ve even had a few who actively criticize me, to my face and behind my back.
So there’s two sides to that issue too: at one point, you should care because it’s your girlfriend’s friend and you should try to patch that up or make it bearable. At another point, if you’re someone that’s made little to no effort to get to know me and yet wants to criticize me on back channels, I’m OK not being an active part of that relationship.
There are absentee friendships and absentee bosses. We don’t discuss those ones as much as fathers or ballots, but they matter to how we perceive the world around us and the life we’re leading day-to-day.
For actions to matter and work to excel, you do need to invest
This is more on the management side than the friend side, but you could argue it applies to both.
If you call someone by the wrong name, even if they want to keep getting a check from your company, they are not going to work as hard for you as they could be working. That’s just reality. I am not sure all managers fully grasp this reality, but it’s just reality.
If you want excellent work from people, you need to show an interest in them. Now, notice I am not saying you need to be friends with them, which scares a lot of managers. I am just saying you need to ask them about how they like to work, what they like about work, where process could be better, what their career goals are, and a little bit about their personal life. You don’t need to be their best friend at the bar. But you need to show some caring, somewhere.
It’s the same with friendship. When people are assholes to me or don’t take any interest, I usually cut out on my side. That’s probably petty and over time I’ve endeavored to work a little at it, but I just don’t really care about someone’s views on me — boss or friend circle — if they make no effort to know anything about me. It’s like, at that point, what’s the difference between them and a random lady on the street yelling at me for something? Just that I “report” to one? Sure, that’s a difference. But less of one than most might think.
I’m not saying we should get in a drum circle and go around loving on each other. Society, especially American society, is very polarized right now and you will run into people you dislike, often vehemently. I get it. And you will be in an overlap circle with people you have no interest in. And, hell, you might get someone as a direct report that you have no interest in and can’t possibly relate to. This happens a lot when people from other silos get some high-level control of IT.
So we don’t all need to be best friends, but give a little, get a little, ya know? I could be better there too. I think we all could. So … maybe let’s try to be less absentee?