How to take over for a hands-off boss

March 12, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC
MAD MEN, John Slattery in 'The Doorway, Part 1' (Season 6, Episode 1, aired April 7, 2013), 2007-, ph: Michael Yarish/©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection
Photo illustration from a photo by Michael Yarish—©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection

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The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: My boss is totally checked out and spends more time and effort avoiding accountability than solving problems or helping his team deliver good work.

In some ways, I don’t mind—no boss is actually better than an actively bad boss, after all—but I often feel like I have to do his job in order to do my job. I’ve been treating it like an opportunity for growth and have been making every move I can to grow my own capabilities beyond his purview, with good results so far. 

My question is, How far into this leadership vacuum should I venture? Are there some lines I shouldn’t cross? How will I know if or when it’s time to file a completely honest performance review?

A: Dear Ben, 

The fact that you are “making every move you can” and interested in growth tells me that you care about your job, you’re self-motivated, and you want to make things happen. Kudos to you for stepping up instead of taking this as an opportunity to slack off.

Many people in your position wouldn’t be interested in leading, let alone be worried they’re doing it right as they juggle new responsibilities on top of old ones. Many people have a hard time getting things done in your situation because they’re so frustrated by not knowing what their bosses want or worried they’ll get something wrong.  

Whether you’re talking about other people or yourself when you mention that he’s not “helping the team deliver good work,” I can see that you’re thinking about what kind of support people need in order to do well. Having an awareness of this shows your emotional intelligence. Not all bosses connect in that way, and many don’t build time into their day to notice how the people they work with are doing. This is a failure of leadership. Good leaders know that managing people also means supporting people on their team. It sounds like your boss is unavailable or avoidant, an all too common problem. While I agree that a checked-out boss is better than a micromanager, a boss that’s totally absent puts a lot of responsibility on you. 

However, the questions you asked have a common theme, which I fear may take you down a path of resentment, interpersonal drama, and dead ends. You’ve hinged your problem on his unhelpful approach, focusing on how much of his work to pick up and if/how/when you might expose him. I can see why—it’s literally his job to check in on what you’re doing and to motivate the team. For whatever reason, he’s not giving you and your colleagues the support you need.  

Kim Scott offers a useful guide for identifying the traits of absentee managers in her book Radical Candor: Being A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. “In general, absentee managers don’t give guidance, aren’t open to receiving feedback, and don’t assist their employees,” she writes. “They also tend to lack curiosity about what their employees are doing. Even worse, they might not want to know at all. A true absentee manager doesn’t want any details, which allows them to remain unaware of problems.” 

She offers three tactics for how to handle these types of supervisors:

  • Asking for regular one-on-one check-ins
  • Making time to discuss what you’re trying to accomplish
  • Giving feedback to your manager

I agree that all of these are great to try with a hands-off boss. Give them a shot.

I’ve also had experiences with a true absentee manager, and I found that if they don’t want to pay attention to you or don’t have the bandwidth, it can be frustrating to continue to focus on changing their behavior. Let’s be real: You can give feedback to someone, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to take it. You can tell someone your goals, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to help you work toward them (especially if they are trying to avoid getting involved at all costs). Scott’s tactics are worth trying—and maybe you already have!—but I also encourage you to also focus on what you need in this situation. 

My please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is for you to make more conscious decisions about how and when to advocate for yourself and the team. The best thing about having an unresponsive boss: You have a huge opportunity to get things done on your terms. Make the most of the space you have. Stop thinking about this situation as a “leadership vacuum” or like you “have to do his job.” There are so many situations that will suck your energy at work if you approach them this way. 

Focusing on what you can get done and how you can show your leadership is ultimately going to be more useful for you. If you reframe this as an opportunity for you to show what you can do, and how you can lead people or projects, the results that you deliver are going to help you in this job and throughout your career. 

Like any work you’re doing (and this applies to full-time employees, contractors, consultants, and entrepreneurs), you need to be keeping track of what you’ve been able to accomplish at work. This means both big accomplishments, which you should focus on in your annual review or when you interview for your next job, and smaller wins. Keep a running document, in Google Docs, on your personal computer, or in your go-to notebook. Include numbers where you can, especially when they show the impact of your work. Tracking those smaller wins over time will help you see big-picture trends that you’re good at and what you’ve been able to get done, especially if you’re starting to take on responsibilities that aren’t in your job description.  

Tracking wins for yourself also helps you reframe what you’re doing so you can show the impact of your work. And it helps you keep examples top of mind so you can be a better advocate for yourself in interactions with your team members. For example, instead of responding to a colleague complaining about a situation with something like, “My manager never answers the questions that marketing has, so I’ve been dealing with them on top of my other job duties,” you can try an approach like, “I started inviting marketing into brainstorming meetings so they could be a part of the conversation earlier. I’ve noticed that the ad copy they’ve done after those early planning meetings has gotten approved more quickly.” 

I’m an optimist, and I have to admit I can sometimes be loyal to a fault. While I want your wins to be the only thing you need to document, in your situation you also need to keep track of times when your boss is really letting the team down. You haven’t given a lot of information about what that means, so I’m going to offer general advice. 

You’re in a tricky situation, since you’re starting to take on work that should fall under your boss. You don’t want to be held accountable for things that go wrong that are outside your pay grade. You also need to show that you have tried to engage him when it’s important. It may be tempting to cut him out of the loop if you feel he is going to ignore you or sidestep the work. Think strategically about times you need to make the effort, so you can demonstrate that you tried to go through the right process and then made an informed decision after you didn’t hear back within a reasonable time. 

In the past, I’ve sometimes kept track of what went well and what could have gone better in meetings. Taking five to 10 minutes after a meeting to write this down helps you notice trends (both positive and negative) and times when you’ve consistently had to follow up on things that haven’t been delivered. It gives you documentation. If you’re in a situation where you need to escalate something to someone above your boss or to HR, you’ll have concrete examples and proof to back it up. “I’ve been checking in on my expenses being approved in my weekly meeting for two months, and I still haven’t gotten them approved” is a lot more powerful than “He’s bad at paperwork.”

If your boss is unresponsive, document that. Canceling meetings, not speaking to you at work, not proactively letting you know about important policy changes or passing on critical information are all things that stop you from being able to do your current job. 

How far you “venture into this leadership gap” depends on how much you care about leading. If you’re interested in managing people or projects, showing that you can do that is important. If you’re more interested in focusing on work you’re doing now, stretching into someone else’s role is going to take you further away from the work that you care about and lead to you being overextended while you do two jobs. If you’re leaning into that role just because no one else is, think about how much you’re picking up and if it’s yours to carry.

Sending you good vibes,

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