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What’s Worse Than a Tyrannical Leader? One Who Isn’t There

How to recognize absentee leaders.
By: | June 1, 2018 • 4 min read

A high-performing salesperson knocks his sales goals out of the park every month and consistently brings in new clients while maintaining great internal and external relationships. When a new sales-leadership position opens, his boss suggests that this star performer fill the role. Following a stellar interview, the star performer is now a sales leader. Is this happily ever after?

Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan AssessmentsNot always, says Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan Assessments. Too often these top performers are promoted into leadership positions for which they aren’t suited, he says.

“What it takes to be a successful salesperson versus a successful sales leader is different,” says Gregory. “Companies fail to recognize that and fail to measure the characteristics required for leadership roles appropriately. These star contributors get promoted but not on the basis that they have talent for a leadership role.”

In the star-performer scenario, you lose the best salesperson and gain a poor manager. It’s not good for the leader who got promoted, his team or the organization, says Gregory.

These types of corporate promotions happen frequently and the characteristics that may have made a stellar salesperson don’t carry over easily into leadership, which can derail both the leader and the company. Many leaders fail because of what Hogan has termed “dark-side” characteristics, or strong and overused personality characteristics that get in the way of productive leadership. Some of the same characteristics that made for a good salesperson, for example, strong self-confidence and independence, may become derailers in a leadership role if the person shows up as overly confident or unwilling to consider others’ perspectives.  A good deal is known about identifying dark-side characteristics, and they are relatively obvious in many organizations.  Bosses and teams often know when dark-side characteristics are getting in the way of leadership success.

The dark side of leadership is just as worrisome as it sounds. It may suggest a narcissistic, passive-aggressive, emotionally abusive and demanding figure; however, that’s not the only kind of derailed leader, says Gregory. He argues that an even worse leader is one in title only.

“Absentee leaders are neither actively destructive nor constructive, so they tend to get overlooked,” he says. “In organizations, people pay attention to actively destructive, dark-side leaders. People who don’t cause trouble won’t get much air time. They’re invisible. That’s why it doesn’t get talked about.”

Absentee leaders are psychologically absent from their roles—they enjoy the perks and privileges that come with a promotion but shirk any management-related tasks and avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Though these leaders may fly under the radar, their negative impact on the company is much more pronounced. Gregory says that the most significant impact absentee leaders have on employees is job satisfaction—rather, the lack thereof.

“There are decades of research on how to measure job satisfaction and it’s well known that job satisfaction is highly related to turnover, individual performance, role ambiguity and more,” he says.
In 2015, Interact Authentic Communication conducted a survey of 1,000 U.S. workers to uncover the top complaints about leadership—although not labeled as such, the overwhelming majority of responses were related to absentee leaders. Some of the issues workers cited were that their leaders were not giving clear direction, not recognizing employee achievements, refusing to talk to subordinates and not giving constructive feedback.

Gregory says that on top of decreased job satisfaction, research indicates that there’s an increased risk of bullying within work teams who have an absentee leader and that safety outcomes are compromised when active leadership is lacking.

Employees are left wondering who is in charge, what they should really be doing and to what standards will they be held. This ambiguity often manifests into stress, which is detrimental to both the individual and the organization.

“Because absentee leaders destroy job satisfaction and increase ambiguity and turmoil on teams, they cost organizations real dollars in terms of turnover and lost productivity,” says Gregory. “We know that the conservative estimate of stress in the U.S. workplace is that it costs nearly $30 billion per year, making absentee leadership a costly organizational problem.”

Personality Assessments Highlight the Bright and Dark Sides of Leaders

Absentee leaders, the silent killers of an organization, are hard to pick out from a crowd. Gregory says people’s dark-side qualities usually don’t appear until they have let their guard down, but are obvious when they appear.  Absentee leadership, by its nature, is detectable only through the vacuum it creates.

This means that absentee leaders may already be settled into their management roles before problems arise. Though no assessment currently exists to pinpoint the exact qualities of an absentee leader, Hogan’s Leadership Forecast Series combines four development-focused reports that paint a clear picture of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of a leader.Hogan's Leadership Forecast Series

Its three flagship assessments, the Hogan Personality Inventory (bright side); Hogan Development Survey (dark side); and Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (inside) offer information regarding the characteristics, competencies and values that underlie ways in which a leader approaches work, leadership and interaction with others in the workplace.

Gregory says that the Hogan Personality Inventory characteristics, or bright side of leadership, show up in a person’s day-to-day behavior and predict performance in a variety of jobs. The Hogan Development Survey highlights dark-side characteristics that appear when someone is stressed, bored or not self-monitoring their behavior. These characteristics don’t show up during interviews because most people are highly self-aware during the interview process. Finally, the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory measures, as the name suggests, someone’s motivation and values. It answers questions such as: What does this person value? Are those values compatible with an organization’s values? Will he or she be a good fit within this company’s culture?

The Series, and its subsequent self-awareness and development reports, are targeted toward senior- and executive-level leaders. There are four core reports, three of which correspond to the assessments. The fourth can be one of the following: a summary report, which supplies an integration across the other reports; or a coaching report, which is designed to help the individual think holistically about the results and translate them into a development plan.

Gregory cautions that there is not one set of characteristics that pinpoints an absentee leader—yet.

“It may not be a set of dark-side characteristics. It might be the absence of some bright-side characteristics, such as ambition, desire to be in charge or make an impact—things that aren’t overtly destructive unless in their absence,” he says. “It’s something we’re actively researching. It’s clear that absentee-leadership qualities differ from what has been found in overtly dark-side leaders, which are easy to spot based on dark-side characteristics—absentee leadership is more about what’s missing than what’s actively present.”