A bad manager can ruin a job. A great manager can make even the worst job tolerable. But what about a manager that just… isn’t there? Absentee managers are a common problem at many tech companies, where managers often have large teams, competing priorities, and massive operational overhead. And this challenge is only getting worse in an era of “increased efficiency”, where both sides are being asked to do more with less. This leaves many individual contributors feeling abandoned by their leadership, with only minimal support to get the job done.
Highly effective managers deal with situations like this by ensuring that their direct reports have open lines of communication and the psychological safety to escalate issues before they become blockers. While these superstar managers may not have as much time as they’d like to spend deep diving in 1:1’s, they make it a priority to keep tabs on their reports and engage precisely when and where they are most needed. They may even build scalable processes or systems that empower their directs to solve issues on their own.
Unfortunately, not all managers respond this way. In an all-too-common scenario, many managers become consumed by day-to-day demands and respond by reducing communication with their reports, or worse: avoiding them entirely. In this case, individual contributors (ICs) are left to scramble to fill in the gaps of the manager’s responsibilities on their own. This can leave ICs directionless, demotivated, or downright stuck.
As an IC, it’s not necessarily your responsibility to pick up a missing manager’s slack. But it’s a good idea to know how to respond to ensure you can keep going strong in their absence. So what can you do when your manager is MIA? To answer that, you first need to understand exactly what you rely on your manager for.
The role of the manager
Take a moment to think about the times you’ve truly needed your manager’s assistance. These should form your core expectations for your manager. In some companies, these responsibilities are publicly documented. In other places, the role of a manager is only informally understood. However, in almost all contexts — managers serve three critical functions:
- Approvals – signing off on logistical needs such as budget, expenses, and travel
- Direction – communicating the organization’s priorities and ensuring the team’s work builds towards them
- Performance – evaluating reports’ performance and determining eligibility for advancement and compensation
These are the things that you essentially have to work with your manager on. So if you’re manager is MIA, you’ll need to figure out how to both communicate needs related to these areas and get someone to take action on them. For this, I recommend three key steps: craft a communication strategy, own your own roadmap, and track your performance.
Note: there are a couple of different reasons why a manager might be absent. Maybe there are personal reasons (like medical leave), maybe they are themselves unsupported by their manager, or maybe they simply have too many reports. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume your manager is competent, well-intentioned, and that you are relatively comfortable at your company. If your manager is disrespectful, unqualified, or you’re brand new to a company, you’ll likely need additional support beyond what’s written here. Keep reading to the end for more tips on trouble shooting those situations below.
Managing yourself when your manager’s away
Step 1 – Craft a communication strategy
To advocate for your needs, you’re going to need to have a clear line of communication with your manager. In an absentee manager situation, these lines are often broken. It’s up to you to set up a system to communicate with your manager that actually works for you and them. If they can’t prioritize a 1:1, will they read emails? Do they respond to chats? If you work in the same office, can you physically swing by their desk? If all that fails, consider whether there is anyone who can get your manager’s attention — for example, an executive assistant or product lead in a different discipline — and see if you can use them as a proxy.
Once you figure out how you are going to communicate, it’s time to focus on what you need to communicate. I recommend focusing on the bare minimum set of things that you need to be successful. This should include anything related to our three critical responsibilities above – performance, approvals, and direction. Limit your communication to only 1) critical updates they need about your work and 2) the related action items you need from them. Make any action items or requests crystal clear. Bold them and put them at the top of any communication.
Step 2 – Own your own roadmap
A small but important upside of absentee management is that it can create an opportunity for you to take on greater ownership over your work. If your manager isn’t providing you with the direction you need, that’s a sign that it’s time for you to step up and provide that direction for yourself. Talk with your teammates and your stakeholders to identify priorities. Build a point of view on what projects you think are most important and what your research approach should be. Then take that to your manager and tell them what you think you should be working on.
Who knows? With your manager otherwise occupied, you may even have the opportunity to engage more directly in team and leadership meetings that your manager would normally have attended. Use this to your advantage to gather context and inform your perspective.
Step 3 – Track your performance
Another silver lining of a manager who’s not around? You get to be in charge of your own performance narrative. This has upsides and downsides of course. On the positive side, you can take more control to shape a story about the kind of work you’re doing and the impact it’s having. To do this, you’ll need to carefully track your work and ensure you have proof to back up any claims about the outcomes. Keeping a written log of your activity and building in support — whether metrics, testimonials, or links to key artifacts — can help you build your case. When you accomplish something that you think your manager should know about, include that in your communication. Keep it brief — but consider including any proof points you’ve collected to back it up. And if you have collaborators or stakeholders who are saying nice things about you, consider asking them to mention it to your manager directly.
On the other hand, without a manager, it can be more difficult to assess when you’re off track or where you need to grow. To compensate for this lack of feedback, double down on your relationships with your teammates and partners to make sure you have strong lines of communication with them. Ask for feedback early and often to catch minor issues before they become bigger problems. If you have more senior teammates you can talk to, consider asking them to help you spot growth areas and provide regular feedback on your work. Record all of this effort just like you would with your other accomplishments — noting what the issues were, how you approached them. and how you eventually resolved them. Where appropriate, ask your teammates to highlight these areas of growth to your manager in conversations with them.
The above approach works well when you have a well-intentioned manager who is simply overburdened. Unfortunately, that doesn’t describe every absentee manager situation. I already mentioned having a hostile or unqualified manager. But what if you do all this work and your manager still won’t communicate with you or take action on your requests?
In that case, I see three options: overcommunicate, find an interim solution, or leave the team. None of these are easy and all come with some risks, so I recommend only using them after you’ve tried the strategies described above.
Option 1 – Overcommunicate
What happens if your manager still doesn’t respond to your cleverly crafted comms strategy? Or worse, responds but fails to act on your requests? First, try iterating on your strategy. Is there a different channel they will respond to? Can you be more direct and precise with your asks? If that still fails— then ignore my advice to limit your communication to critical moments and start communicating incessantly. Pick the key items you need your manager’s attention on and don’t let up until you get confirmation and commitment to that support.
You’re unlikely to make friends this way. Your manager may even get annoyed with you. So be sure that there really is no other way to solve the problem before trying this. But if you really do need your manager to act, this approach can force a discussion about the issue. And even if it doesn’t — you’ll have the documentation to show that you identified and flagged the issue to them proactively. This can be valuable if you later need to escalate the issue to their manager or even to HR.
Option 2 – Find an interim solution
What if your manager simply isn’t available? In this case, it’s a good idea to find an interim manager who can fill in their critical responsibilities. Ideally this person would be designated as an official replacement for your manager while they’re unavailable— but sometimes these things happen unexpectedly without a lot of time to plan.
Look around your organization for leaders who have a similar level of context as your manager. This could be someone who is one level up or down from your manager. It could be a senior team member who doesn’t typically manage. It could even be a manager from a nearby discipline. Tell them what types of support you need, explain why you need it, and ask them if they can help provide that while your manager is away. Even if they can’t help you directly, they may be able to advocate for additional support on your behalf.
Option 3 – Leave the team
What if, after all this, you’re still not getting the support you need to do your job? In that case, it’s time to leave. Is there another team or manager you can move to? In large companies, this is usually the easiest answer — and worth looking into as a first option. If not, start looking outside your company for new roles. It’s not worth it to stick in a situation where you can’t get the basic support you need to succeed.
Looking for a new job, especially in the current job landscape, can be exhausting. But it’s useful to know what options you have. And, while quitting can be scary, in my experience, it often opens up new opportunities you may not have considered possible before.
Having an MIA manager can be a major drain to motivation, productivity, and emotional energy. It takes a lot of work to manage yourself. But it can also lead to some surprising benefits. Often, you’ll find opportunities that were previously off limits — for instance, attending leadership meetings — are now available to you. It can give you a chance to show more senior skills. And it comes with a great deal more autonomy over your work.
Recognizing these silver linings — and conversely, knowing when to cut your losses and run — can make the difference between a miserable situation and an unexpected new opportunity.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a pathfinder and strategist with over ten years of experience advising top tech companies on preparing for the future. She’s had nine different managers in the last 4 years, leading to many insights on self-management. Her blog, tiny-data.tech, is aimed at helping researchers deepen their strategic impact and future thinking. You can find more from Genevieve on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash