Managing a Hands-Off Manager

March 4, 201512:00 pm879 views

Having a hands-off manager can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, these bosses give employees considerable autonomy, initiative and empowerment. On the other hand, they can sometimes be so removed from the action that they’re unable to intervene when needed, making employees feel like they’re left to fend for themselves.

A hands-on manager is similarly problematic. These managers are generally able to intervene before things get out of hand and possess enough granular knowledge to offer insightful suggestions, but they often reduce empowerment by stifling initiative and consuming a lot of employees’ energy by asking for too much follow-up.

Let’s say you’ve got a manager who’s too much of a hands-off boss for your taste. How do you manage the situation? First, let’s define the terminology:


With this definition in mind, think about what’s bothering you most. Is the problem insufficient contact? Not enough discussion? A lack of follow-up? Disinterest in information?

Then, ask yourself: Are you the only person who is observing this kind of behavior or is your boss showing the same patterns with other employees? Are you the only one who seems to mind the situation? Try to be as objective as possible. Human beings suffer from confirmatory biases — the propensity to observe, interpret, and remember reality in a way that “confirms” the labels we have already stuck on people and situations.

If you are significantly annoyed by your boss’s “lack of engagement,” you may be missing the instances where your boss is actually engaged. Look for disconfirming evidence. Try to speak with colleagues who may disagree with you, instead of seeking corroboration from the ones you know share your point of view. It may well be that once you’ve checked your facts, your boss’s behavior will look better than it did at first glance.

Once you have a clearer picture of the symptoms, try to understand why your boss is behaving the way he or she is. How you respond will depend on the root cause of the problem. Consider these scenarios:


Earlier in my career, a dean at my school (who used to be a peer) asked me and another colleague to lead a significant change effort. As weeks passed, we became increasingly frustrated with the dean who had become so hands-off that we called him “the e-mail re-allocation machine.” All he seemed to do was re-send e-mails to other relevant parties.

He didn’t show any interest in the details of what he had asked us to do, nor was he knowledgeable enough to give us any help. He had his hands full with other projects, like nurturing a growing network of external senior executives, but that didn’t stop us from feeling taken advantage of. Unsurprisingly, this story did not end well.

Looking back, it’s now very clear that we ourselves had mismanaged the situation. My colleague and I labeled our boss “essentially useless.” Once we did that, we were much less inclined to try to see things his way or make sure that we kept him informed. This triggered a vicious circle — the less we told him, the less he knew; the less he knew, the less useful he could be and the more resentful we became. The more resentful we became, the more distant he became.

Instead, we should have tried to be less judgmental, maintaining more compassion toward him. After all, he had entrusted us with this important job and was giving us a lot of room to innovate and maneuver. That was a plus — not a minus! We should’ve realized that he was much more psychologically inclined to look at the big picture than at the fine print, so his lack of focus was not a lack of interest, nor was it a lack of respect; it was simply a reflection of the way he was wired.

We should have kept him connected and involved and we could’ve made the project reviews more pleasant for him by not acting like we were more competent than him in this particular area.

Last but not least, the strong connections he was developing upward and outside of the organization were a reflection of his personal ambition, which we could have respected more (and resented less). We could’ve asked him to use his network to help us in our mission, which he would have been delighted and proud to do.

If you find yourself complaining about a hands-off boss, it’s useful to remember that the situation also has its advantages. It’s also critical to try to manage your frustration, as it rarely enhances the relationship. Re-energizing some compassion for your boss will help.

You may choose one of the tactics mentioned above — initiating more contact with your boss to keep her engaged and informed or making her aware of the way she allocates time and attention — but in some cases, you may also choose to learn to live with the situation accepting that while your boss’s behavior is not ideal, it’s not a show-stopper either. In short: having a hands-off boss doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With the right strategy, you can use the situation to your advantage.

See: Will Oracle’s Co-CEO Setup Work?

The original article was first published on the Harvard Business Review

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