The Boss That’s Never There

In every office, in every building, there’s a manager who’s never there. They’re always double booked for meetings, running from “important thing” to “even more important thing” – and on the rare occasion you see them in the flesh they have a phone to their ear and a line of people waiting outside their door. They’re so hard to get to, sometimes people squeeze their way in for chats on the boss’s way the bathroom, the conference room, or their car.

When I was young I thought the uber-busy manager was a god – If they’re so busy, doesn’t that mean they’re very important? I used to think so, but not anymore. Everyone goes through a phase early in their career where they’re proud of hard work. Circles of young professionals regularly debate with friends over drinks,  who has put in crazier hours – “I worked 60 hours last week”, “60? I worked 60 hours in 3 days.” “3 days? I worked 70 hours this morning, before breakfast.” And on it goes. It’s usually dumb pride to focus on the size of things, rather that their quality or, god forbid, finding actual fulfillment in life. To work 70 hours is a statement of work, not of progress. For every idiot working 70 hours there’s a smarter, wiser person who’s doing the same amount of work in 45 because he’s paying more attention to results than the clock. I’d rather be, and rather hire, that employee.

It might take years for the realization to happen, but soon, in every circle of friends, one will ask “Why I am spending 70 hours a week at work when I want a girlfriend, a dog, and maybe even a life?” The ever-busy manager is the one person who never fully asks that question. They’re stuck in the obsession of volume, preferring being busy to being just about anything else. Busy can be a very safe place for a person to hide. Being busy gives a safe excuse for not being accountable to the people who need you the most. Being busy is a failure to prioritize. To call everything important means in reality that nothing is important. It’s likely some people will see you as busy because they are unimportant, but if the people most important to you find you busy, the problem is yours, not theirs.

A good manager discovers that if they are unavailable to the people who work for them, their true value is limited. Most of the literal work that gets done in any organization, whether it’s writing, engineering or selling, can be best done by others who do those tasks all day. It’s making strategy decisions, giving advice, putting out dangerous fires, and paving the way for the team through organization politics that are the tasks only the “the boss” can do best. A manager that’s never there is often also micromanager, as they don’t understand what management is for in the first place.

I had a manager once who insisted on reading his e-mail and typing responses through our 1-on-1s. He’d pretend to give me focus by typing without looking at his screen, but I never saw his soul in his eyes – instead I knew most of his true attention went out into the emails and not towards me. I soon found myself cutting our 1-on-1s as short as possible (and using the time to work on finding another job and a better manager).

Anyone powerful should recognize if they don’t have time for important things then it’s their responsibility to delegate tasks away until they do. So reconsider who you give respect to: the manager that’s never there, or the one that’s always there when you need them.



[revised lightly 12-8-15]

14 Responses to “The Boss That’s Never There”

  1. niko

    I tend to prefer the manager that is never there than the manager that is always there :)

  2. Scott (admin)

    True – the ideal manager might be like a good dog. They warn you when there’s trouble, they stay out of your way when you’re busy, and they can led a hand whenever you ask.

    (Of course good managers have qualities dogs don’t, such as not needing to be walked 3 times a day or be reminded not to sleep on the couch).

  3. robert gal

    yes, I used to be that ‘busy’ looking man type. I was pride, that I’m so busy, and first thing I told to new people I met was “i’m a very busy person”. Also, each my second sentence was “I have no time”.

    Ha. I now know, I was bad. Just agree on everything you wrote. Time management could be onself an art. After I learnd, how to manage my time, I feel, like I have time for everything, and everyone, and more, I’m like two or three times more productive than before, and have like 50% more free time like before.

    Inspired me Russel Crown, from the Beautiful mind… a girl came to him in the class, and asked him: “do you have 10 minutes for me?”..he said: “I always have 10 minutes”. nice

  4. JC

    Poor Marx is rolling in his grave. When did people start getting proud about how much they are being exploited, which is essentially what is happening when people brag about their hours.

  5. Ric

    Motion should not be confused with forward progress. Activity should not be confused with productivity. Maximal exertion cannot redress the consequences of minimal planning.

  6. Menger Subscribes

    Agree. Overtime vs Just-in-time … the latter is always a smarter choice.

  7. Timothy Johnson

    Do you think the unproductive managers use the “bragging about the hours” as a subconscious smoke-and-mirrors to hide their lack of progress? That’s been my experience/perception with this beast. It can be interesting to watch their reaction when somebody calls them into accountability for proof of results. (interesting = so darn funny to watch it should be on pay-per-view)

  8. Vineet Reynolds

    This is so typical of most businesses. People who need to take decisions are not there when they’re to be made. And people who need guidance dont find anyfrom the powers that are. People who can make good decisions are in the wrong places with no power or responsibility. And yet, these companies survive.
    Is it just me or is the smartest person usually in the wrong place most of the times?

  9. Laurence Rowe

    This is the reason that the French think us anglo-saxons are completely nuts about how we work. 35 hours maximum working week, by law. (Pity I find french too hard going…)

  10. Hanif Rehman

    Too right, humans lose productivity after a couple of hours anyway and need to re-vitalise the energy somehow. Working a 70 hours every 3 days is nuts. We in Europe and the States need to work smarter and become more efficient and not work insane hours.

  11. Alex Shapiro

    This is pretty accurate, but I found the lack of analysis of why managers act that way a bit disappointing. Chucking it off to “pride” is giving too much credit to the managers. In my and my friends experience managers usually know less then who work under them, and as such they need to create an air of unavailability and intimidation so they won’t be challenged on anything. The usual explanation they try to convince themselves of is “I see the big picture, I don’t have the time for details”, but in reality they are just hiding their inadequacy. I am now working as a manager and try to remain as I was before in regards to my relations with coworkers. A manager has to have most of the knowledge required for the successful completion of a given project, and hence has to have that knowledge or work harder then his subordinates to acquire it. As it usually happens, the biggest kiss-ass get the job and everyone suffers, including the project. I got the promotion only because our management is tight with money and there wasn’t enough time to find a new manager to meet the deadline.

  12. Ahmad

    i agree with Alex Shapiro. unfortunately most managers comes out of heavens directly .i have hardly seen managers growing .How come a manager can understand the problems of his workers if he has never been through that time .Most companies prefer to have an alien manager to impress its workforce rather then create a sanctuary to grow managers .How unfortunate ;)

  13. joumana

    I agree with you 100%. I wish managers are trained on this.



  1. […] Wise words Tags: Quality, management, productivity Monday, March 20th, 2006 To work 70 hours is a statement of work, not of progress. For every idiot working 70 hours there’s a smarter, wiser man who’s doing the same amount of work in 50 because he’s paying more attention to results than the clock. I’d rather be, and rather hire, that man. Source (via) […]

Leave a Reply

* Required