How to work with a distracted boss

It's not all bad if your manager seems to show you little attention. Here is advice on how to manage the situation well.
How to work with a distracted boss

Micromanagement is widely and rightly regarded as one of the deadly sins of management. Having a boss who constantly hovers over you is demotivating, disempowering, and anxiety-inducing. It can make you want to leave your job. But what about the other extreme — a distracted boss? How do you deal with a manager who rarely gives you attention and whose mind is usually on other matters?

Focus on the positives

You are likely to have a huge amount of latitude in your job. A distracted boss will not be looking over your shoulder or checking that you've ticked every box — and this has implications for everything from how you define your goals to how you structure your time. Remember, too, that a distracted boss probably won't play favourites, take credit for your work, or blame others for their mistakes. They'll just be a bit absent — and this is by no means all bad.

Is this a bad fit because of you or because of the manager?

Some people like very little oversight — and for them the distracted boss may be a perfect fit. Others need feedback and direction, and, for them, a middle-of-the-road boss may seem uninterested and absent. Ask colleagues what they think, then take their views on board and ask yourself if you can adapt your own working style to be a better fit with your boss's.

Talk with your boss

Fortunately, this is an easy conversation to have and the pitch is simple: You'd like a bit more direction and feedback. However, there are good and bad ways to approach it. Bad: "You never pay the team any attention, and we have no idea what you want." Good: "The team really wants to do their best for you. We'd love a bit of direction here, and more feedback would be great because you know this area inside out." These are good rules generally. You make the problem about what you need, not about the other person's failings, and then you ask for help. It's worth remembering that many problems at work are problems because the other person has no idea there is an issue. Your boss might not even know they come across as distracted.

Take the initiative by scheduling a meeting

You might say to your boss, "Could we have a one-to-one on the first Tuesday of every month?" Numbers help here, so this works even better if you are part of a team. You might suggest a team meeting on Monday mornings. If this approach fails, you may just have to ambush your boss. Again, do this carefully. Say, "I'd really like to chat about my current project and thought we could grab five minutes now." If they make excuses, say, "OK, can we agree a time that works for you?" You might add that you appreciate your boss is busy but that this is very important to you.

Become more entrepreneurial

With a distracted boss, you can define your own job. Take this further by embracing the idea that you are CEO of your career. Volunteer for projects and start your own initiatives. Keep your boss aware to avoid having to back out of the work if your boss does not support it. Build your networks and boost your visibility across the business. A distracted boss is a great example of a problem that is also an opportunity.

Build other relationships

Here, you need to be careful. You don't want to be seen to be rejecting your boss outright. But if you're working on a cross-departmental project, you might suggest that, along with reporting to your boss, you have a dotted line to the head of the other department. You could ask for a mentor or sponsor to look after your career development, or you could ask for a secondment to another part of the business. Again, the idea is to broaden those you are exposed to beyond your immediate, distracted manager.

Take charge of recognition

Be proactive and document what you do. There are two reasons for this. The first is long-term. If and when your boss gets around to giving you an annual appraisal, you'll have something to show them. Second, you want to be telling your boss (and others) what you've done. So if you finish a project early and under budget, email your boss, ideally cc'ing a couple of other people. Similarly, if a client sends you an email saying they love your work, forward it. So as not to appear that you're blowing your own trumpet too much, you should also draw attention to the work of others. Say, "I just wanted you to know what an amazing job Jenny did."

Be alert for opportunities

A distracted boss is not a terrible thing in the way that a micromanaging or bullying boss is. But they will not motivate or inspire you to deliver your best, nor are you likely to rise with them (because they probably won't rise). So, give the situation time and try to work around it and with what you've got. But if your boss remains distracted and this is holding you back, you need another job with another boss.

Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at