(Guest article by Tim Wayne )


For all of the perks employers offer to attract talent, one of the best ways to motivate staff is to give them freedom. Employees perform better when they have control over how, when, and where they work. For managers eager to save time from micromanaging, this can seem like a win-win.

But managers err when they confuse freedom as an excuse for passivity. Regardless of how laissez-faire a manager decides to take employee freedom, a leader must be available to establish expectations, resolve workplace conflict, and motivate their team.

While we’d all like a say in how we can carry out our workday, nobody needs an absentee leader. When a manager neglects their staff, they’re what Brian C. Holtz, assistant professor of Rutgers University, calls a “do nothing boss.”

As Holtz puts it:

It is conceivable that well-intentioned supervisors could mistakenly perceive that passive leadership is an effective management style. …For instance, supervisors might wish to avoid being perceived as ‘micromanaging’ subordinates. This could lead individuals to assume that a hands-off approach to leadership is optimal.

It can be all too easy to mistake passive leadership as effective, especially as staff increasingly demands more freedom in the workplace. But in fact, employees rarely view passive leaders favorably.

“The findings of (my) research suggest that employees of passive leaders ultimately perceive their organization does not care about their well-being or provide the support necessary to succeed,” Holtz concludes in his study on passive leadership.

In this post, I’ll examine a few signs you might find in an office where lackadaisical leadership is becoming a problem. If you find any of these red flags in your work space, it’s time to reassess your organization’s management style.

1. Your manager has an open door policy (that nobody uses)

The open door policy is meant to make leadership accessible, foster an open exchange of information between staff and leadership, and offer a place for resolving conflict at work.

These policies are also often a foot-in-the-door for passive managers, but the bigger problem is that they’re based on false assumptions. One of the most common misconceptions in management is that employees will seek management as needed – which is frequently not the case.

One survey featured in Harvard Business Review illustrates the point with these statistics:

  • 42% of employees withhold information because of the potential consequences of sharing what’s on their minds.
  • A quarter of workers avoid giving feedback because they feel that doing so would be a waste of time.
  • One out of five say that they don’t give feedback on everyday problems because they fear the consequences of dealing with management.

While an open door policy can be a great supplement to fostering relationships with staff, this kind of policy alone isn’t enough to persuade staff to seek a healthy manager-employee relationship. Leadership needs to proactively reach out to these employees – not expect this policy to address problems as they arise.

2. Deadlines are being missed

When a boss doesn’t provide clear expectations or evaluations, the most obvious impact is that employees are less likely to feel liable for the quality of their work. However, this is also likely to severely impact their ability to manage time – and that means missed deadlines.

The most obvious reason that this happens is that passive leaders may neglect to clearly delegate tasks to their staff; another is that these leaders often lack systems for tracking project deadlines. But an often overlooked cause is the psychological impact of passive leadership on employees.

Without the oversight of management, some staff will struggle to manage priorities at work. In a way, they create the perfect storm for procrastination. In one study published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality in 2000, researchers found that students were more likely to put off tasks as they increased in difficulty while reporting increasing levels of emotional stress.

A lack of evaluation can make staff become fearful about their work performance, leading them to avoid priority tasks in lieu of easier or more enjoyable tasks. For these workers, tough tasks are typically avoided until deadlines draw near – which may be too late for a project to be successful.

3. Nobody cares about company culture

What does your team represent if it doesn’t have the guidance of a leader?

Leadership is far from the only authority influencing company culture. Every member of a team – their values, beliefs, and experiences – contribute part by part totaling to an organization’s culture. However, as business author Edgar Schein puts it, leaders are the “main architects of culture” who must guide cultural change within the company.

Without an engaged leader vested in a company culture, culture is far more likely to suffer. And for workers, culture matters. Some culture-related reasons new hires report leaving a job include communication styles, how feedback is given, and transparency – all of which can be in the control of management.

According to several studies, offices suffering from poor company culture more frequently face problems like unmotivated employees, and substantially higher turnover rates. On the other hand, workers satisfied with their company’s culture tend to perform better, report higher levels of job satisfaction, and are more likely to become long-term employees.

While passive management may seem like an ideal compromise between employees yearning for more freedom at work and bosses desperate to make time, the consequences of not playing an active, engaged part in your team are too damaging to ignore.

About the author:

Tim Wayne is a Digital Content Marketer from Virginia Beach with an interest in small business management. Tim has worked with websites across a wide range of industries in writing copy and promoting content online.

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