Jerry started a new role in his company and quickly realized how unsupported he felt. He approached his boss Karli for help on several occasions, but found her to be caught up in her own role. Karli didn’t make time for Jerry’s questions or make him a priority, gave him incomplete information and expected him to figure things out without adequate direction. Over time, he didn’t feel he could seek out help from his boss without the threat of being demoted or fired. There was no psychological safety. Eventually, he stopped sharing his struggles and lost confidence. He felt lonely, stressed out and disconnected from his own strengths. A year later, Jerry was miserable and wanted to leave his company. He felt resentful, devalued and disappointed. Mainly, he wanted to quit his boss.
If Jerry’s story sounds familiar, you may be dealing with “ghost” leadership that Daryll Bryant describes in his book Engage. Lead. Deliver. You’re not crazy and you’re not alone. Ghost leadership is real and prevalent in many organizations. It generally happens when the leader is afraid of making a mistake, and rather than just showing up and giving it their best effort, they withdraw and isolate, leaving others to figure things out for themselves. Ghost leaders can make you question your sanity.
Here’s what a work culture with a ghost leader looks like. Your voice isn’t heard, or if it is, it’s not really listened to. You can’t speak up without fear of being seen as negative or even worse, getting fired. You never make a move without considering how to CYA (cover-your-a**), because you’re sure you’ll get blamed or criticized. There’s a lack of transparency, which creates an undercurrent of gossip, conjecture and negativity. Since goals aren’t clear and aligned across the organization, decisions are crisis-driven rather than strategic. You’re left feeling confused and isolated. Rather than being an important somebody on a functional team, you’re feeling like a disconnected nobody in a dysfunctional group.
So, what can you do to thrive in an environment with an absentee or “ghost” leader? Here are five steps to take control and regain confidence:
1. Remember Your Strengths
When your boss is unavailable for mentoring and guidance, it’s easy to start doubting your skills and acumen. If your inner critic starts rearing its ugly head, try these journaling prompts to remind yourself how much you rock:
What strengths do I bring to the workplace?
What is my superpower at work?
What can I give myself credit for in the past week/month?
2. Find Support
Surround yourself with colleagues and mentors to help fill in the gaps an absent boss can create. Which team members or leaders in your office can answer questions and provide guidance when you encounter challenges? Make a list of helpful colleagues to reach out to when you feel stuck.
3. Invest in Yourself
Focus on your own growth and development to help you pivot into a new role or organization. What are you curious about at this stage in your development? There may be books, online courses (MOOC’s, like edx.org or coursera.org), podcasts or other educational possibilities worth exploring. If you’re looking for more personalized growth, consider hiring a coach to support your career and leadership goals.
When work is chaotic and stressful, make it a priority to take care of yourself. Taking walks outside with colleagues and leaving the office for lunch can give you much-needed mental breaks during your work day. In addition, there are specific mindfulness and meditation practices proven to reduce anxiety and depression, increase focus, memory and mental clarity, and even increase empathy for others (including those whom you find the most frustrating!). Free apps like InsightTimer can be a great place to start.
5. Take the Long View
Although it may be hard to see it now, you can learn valuable lessons working for a ghost boss. You’re learning what doesn’t work in leadership. Take that in and let it inform your own approach in the future.
The key is to recognize what you can do that is within your control and focus on making small steps forward. With time and effort, new possibilities will surface. Learn from the experience and remember that you are the star of your own movie…everyone else is just an extra on the set, here to teach you.