Passivity and boss aren't two words normally equated with one another. After all, a boss is generally associated with authority, someone presumed to be clear and confident in handing out orders. But that's not always the case.
There are two forms of a passive managerial style, according to Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. The first form occurs when problems and subordinates are completely ignored and expectations aren't clarified. In other words, a laissez-faire manager "who's in the position of leader but isn't taking on the role," she says.
The second form is less extreme. It's characterized by managers who "don't interfere with problems unless they become serious," Barsade says.
Either variation of passive leadership is bad news for your office. Here are some of the more distinct drawbacks.
No one's taking charge. With no clear line of authority, you spend your days at work speculating about who's delegating. "In essence, there's a vacuum in leadership," Barsade says, adding, "[Managers are] literally absent when they're needed."
You're forced to manage the manager. Your boss's behavior has left you trying to figure out how to best approach him or her on a regular basis. "It puts responsibilities on the employee to best manage that particular boss with that particular personality," says Marilyn Puder-York, a licensed psychologist and author of "The Office Survival Guide."
Expectations are a foreign concept. It's only natural that you would want feedback about how you're performing in your job. "Every person who has a boss needs clear expectations every step of the way ... real, candid ongoing feedback about how their performance is lining up with those expectations," says Bruce Tulgan, author of "It's OK to Be the Boss"
But if passivity is at the core of your boss's management style, don't count on an evaluation anytime soon.
Major projects suffer. Properly completing a project you and your colleagues are working on requires a blueprint from the top. But after issuing the task weeks ago, the boss has left everyone in limbo by not spelling out what he or she wants. "For a project, you need a plan, goals, time lines and parameters for each goal," Tulgan notes.
High-performers feel neglected. Workers who put forth the bare minimum likely could care less if the boss has a passive nature.
But high-performers need some nurturing. They want a boss who is going to help them be more efficient and "remove unnecessary obstacles and problems, and in a position to help them get recognition and reward when they go the extra mile," Tulgan says.
Conflict arises. The subordinate-boss relationship isn't the only one that suffers from passivity. Stress and lack of direction can cause disagreements amongst the rank-and-file. "[It increases] the environment of conflict among co-workers," Barsade says.
Unresolved problems mushroom. After months of letting personnel and organizational issues fester, a managerial effort is finally made. But it's far from smooth, coming from a boss who is unaccustomed to exercising authority. "All of a sudden a boss who's hands-off ... comes down like a ton of bricks," Tulgan says.
[Read: 9 Signs You're a Crummy Boss.]
How to Address the Issue
Keep in mind that your boss's managerial style may have been years in the making, so don't expect an overnight change. Still, there are ways to tactfully and effectively bring the problem to his or her attention.
1. Take personality into consideration. Before raising the issue with your boss, account for his or her personality. A passive boss isn't necessarily a sensitive one. However, he or she may combine both traits. Whatever the combination, tailor your approach accordingly. "You have to act on a strategy that's going to match who this guy or gal is ... and then figure out a script," Puder-York says.
2. The one-on-one approach. If the relationship between you and your superior is strong enough, set up a meeting between just the two of you. Having an "ongoing, one-on-one dialogue," Tulgan says, is a great way to keep a manager accountable for his or her flaws. Tulgan suggests scheduling a weekly or bi-weekly meeting.
3. There isn't always power in numbers. Gathering three or four equally frustrated colleagues and heading into your boss's office may come off as conspiratorial and/or interventionist. Instead of exiting the meeting reformed, he or she may come out searching for the "ringleader," Tulgan notes.
Between getting other employees on board and the unpredictability that comes with a myriad of voices, the powwow approach could prove less effective. "In most circumstances, it's going to be hard to get everyone on the same page and you have no idea how that conversation's going to play out," he says.
4. Frame it as a desire to lend a helping hand. When pointing out the passivity, an employee should present the lack of communication as a hindrance from fully feeling helped. "You have to start with, 'Here's what's in it for you, boss,'" Tulgan says, adding that if you ask for more of his or her time, a manager will be able to "delegate more work to [you]."
5. But don't hesitate to voice your needs. While you want to be unselfish in your approach, don't shudder from pointing out your needs in the areas of feedback and clarification. "Approach the leader and [focus] more on yourself, not them," Barsade says, adding that you should "[ask] for what you need" and avoid harshly detailing what's wrong with them in doing so.
6. Let the higher-ups handle it. Your boss may be a great person, making the task of pointing out his or her flaws that much harder for you and your co-workers. If aversion is office-wide, reach out to someone who's higher up in the pecking order (if such a person exists). "Sometimes you have to go to the boss's boss. If this person is so asleep at the switch," Tulgan says.
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- Bruce Tulgan