Your boss shows up late, sneaks out early, ignores e-mails and winces at work-related questions.
Sound familiar? Many managers are burned out from trying to get more work done with fewer staffers and resources. Some have even stopped caring.
That can frustrate employees who can’t get questions answered, are waiting in vain for decisions to be made and feel like the workplace is in limbo.
Here are some tips for those trying to cope with a boss who’s given up:
Discover what’s going on
Bosses have mood swings like everyone. So before you do anything to fix the problem, try to determine why your supervisor shows so little interest in work.
It’s possible the boss is dealing with a temporary situation such as a marital issue that will eventually pass, says Katherine Crowley, the co-author of Working for You Isn’t Working for Me.
But there’s also the likelihood that something more serious is going on with his or her job. Some bosses lose interest because they’re being pushed out, while others get so fed up that they can’t put any more energy into their work.
Try to ask discreet questions to find out what’s going on.
“You really need to dig deep and see,” says Lynn Taylor, a workplace consultant. “They may just be more forthcoming than you might imagine.”
Try to help
It’s upsetting to work with a manager who’s detached or distracted.
Disinterested bosses “bring down the energy level and motivation” of everyone in a workplace, says Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University, and the author of the forthcoming book Good Boss, Bad Boss.
“The indifference is contagious,” he says.
But while you may resent your boss’s behavior, don’t gossip with other employees or say things that are sarcastic or insulting. Instead, look for opportunities to step in and help.
Many burned-out bosses are more than willing to hand over some responsibilities. So, if there’s a project that could use some much-needed attention, volunteer to work on it, says Gini Graham Scott, the author of A Survival Guide for Working With Bad Bosses.
It will help your boss, and make you look good. But be careful. Don’t overstep your boundaries or threaten your manager’s job. The boss may have given up, but he or she is still in charge.
“You don’t want to sort of look like you’re trying to take over the position,” Scott says.
Take assertive action
If that doesn’t work, it may be time to take more direct steps.
At one company, Sutton says, four or five influential employees gathered together and confronted their boss, saying: “We’ve admired the work you’ve done in the past, but if you don’t change your behavior, we think you should step down.”
It was a risky move, and one that’s not appropriate for every company. But those employees felt OK going with the direct approach, since they knew it was difficult for the boss to fire them.
Other workers don’t have that luxury, so Sutton says there may be subtler ways to fight back.
If a large group of employees makes note of the boss on a workplace attitude survey, that could alert the higher-ups. Or, if the company’s clients express frustration about the indifferent manager, that could lead to some change, too.
Then there’s the other option: talking to your boss’ boss. Telling higher-ups there’s a problem can sometimes be the best solution. But it’s not without risks.
If you go above your boss’ head, he or she will likely get angry or upset, and may become even more difficult to work with, says Wayne A. Hochwarter, a professor of management at Florida State University.
“Animals that are injured are a little bit nastier,” he says.
So weigh your options carefully.
If you don’t feel like complaining, try to find a mentor within the company. He or she may be able to serve as a quasi-manager, providing you with guidance that you’re missing from your boss — and possibly some ways to deal with the situation.
Of course, finding another job may be another solution. Craig Isaacs, now the CEO of a computer software company, did that in the early ’90s. He was working at a technology firm, when his boss eventually gave up and stopped doing his job. Isaacs caught his supervisor playing solitaire on the computer, and decided it was time to put his resume together and start looking.
“At some point, you have to decide what it is you want to do,” he says. “If it’s not fun, get out.”
If finding another job isn’t an option, Sutton says workers can take comfort from the television series, The Office.
On the show, the boss — Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell — makes a series of humorous mistakes, yet the staff somehow copes.
The lesson, he says: Even if you’ve got an absentee boss, you can still find a way to do good work.
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