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article imageOp-Ed: A boss-free workplace? It’s under serious consideration

By Paul Wallis     Aug 10, 2012 in Business
Sydney - You don’t expect to see Forbes Magazine discussing the idea of a boss-free environment. You don’t expect brothel owners to be writing about the virtues of chastity, either. The fact is that a bossless workplace is now a real subject of discussion.
Under the very descriptive banner “Going boss-free: Utopia or Lord of the Flies?” Forbes really does try very hard to discuss the possibilities and the problems. The most pedantic reviewer would have to call this a balanced argument by any standards:
Reactions to the idea are varied. Even proponents of bossless offices note that decisions can take longer to make when there is no hierarchy. In addition, human nature suggests that someone will most likely rise to the forefront of any group and, even without the title, assume the role of leader — not always in a helpful way. But these proponents also say that a flat organization allows employees to work more creatively, more productively and more independently, and feel a greater stake in the success of the company.
Yes, it’s a very long piece of string which could have libraries written on it very soon. Management science will have a ball with this idea. The bossless vision is being discussed on both theoretical and practical terms. What’s called “horizontal management” comes with a few pitfalls, but “democratization” of the workplace is also an issue in some unexpected ways.
The current bossed workplace is called the command and control model. Many commentators feel that someone has to make the decisions and take responsibility for operations. “Who’s doing what” can also be an issue. Dealing with non-performers isn’t necessarily easy in a democratized workplace, either. In theory people can be “voted out”, but in practice…?
The risk of the workplace loudmouths becoming de facto managers at the expense of talent is another perceived risk, and rightly so. Even in a command and control model, extroverted, noisy people can literally shout their way into positions of authority over the heads of far more capable people.
If this sounds like it’s heading towards pro-boss conclusions, it isn’t. The boss-based hierarchy is getting flak from both experts and staff.
Meanwhile, the observed fact is that management is thinning out and reducing its numbers. Command and control is actually a military management model, and like the military, business has discovered that more managers don’t add values. They can be problems in their own right.
A survey by the Wall Street Journal cited in the Forbes article produces some damning statistics of the image of management regarding everything from management style to performance. Coinciding with these views are the endless complaints about management styles, management culture and management’s indifference/irrelevance to workplace issues documented online on employment sites.
Also featured in this global-sized library of complaints about management from courts and headlines are stories of psychotic behavior, animalistic social skills and a very common streak of cheapskate cruelty which was common across the board. I've seen these complaints so often working on employment sites in the US and Europe that they have to be considered an absolute bottom line class of issue for business. The bossless idea is a natural evolution of a situation which is usally intolerable. Management culture has hit pariah status from all sides, whatever its delusions about itself.
At least one commentator has basically said that the command and control model is obsolete:
Thomas Davenport, a senior consultant with Towers Watson and co-author of a book titled, Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization, says the model of being a boss these days is evolving into what he calls “offstage management.” The idea, he notes, is that “nobody comes to work in the 21st century and says, ‘Please manage me.’ They say, ‘Create an environment where I can be successful.’”
There you see the aspirations of an entire generation of college graduates and people on their way up, or trying to be. The new business culture is about personal success in a new way. It looks like the new generation expects measurable returns on their investment of work, unlike previous generations, which simply hoped and fought their way up the ladders. That’s also the big driver behind the New Economy environment where most businesses are actually small business units- More business, less ritual, therefore less formal management in the old style actually equates to more returns.
Davenport also makes a very good point that good workers aren’t necessarily good managers. There’s a big difference in doing your own job and coordinating and controlling the work of others. Lacking basic management skills could not help fully democratic workplaces. The range of issues in being bossless is truly huge.
It needs to be mentioned that the Lord of the Flies metaphor could be very accurate. The Lord of the Flies was about a society of children. It was truly primitive, barbaric and certainly no better than the levels of management barbarism we’re all so busy adoring in the headlines every day. Animal Farm was also a story of an equal-exploitation opportunity employer. All pigs are equal, but horses drop dead.
Questions needing answers
There are also a few natural questions:
Is there a working bossless business model?
Yes. The nearest thing to the bossless idea is the industrial co-op model, which is at least nominally a democratic type of management. Strictly speaking, it’s not so much actually bossless as structured, with accountabilities built in. Co-op members have rights they can legally exercise. These are elements lacking in the bossless theory at the moment.
Are there any advantages for business in bossless business models?
Yes. This is something which needs to be considered on merits, depending on the business itself. These are the issues- What doesn’t need managing? What managerial tasks can be split up or delegated to employees? Does a manager deliver a value which justifies the position? Does a boss help or hinder a business function? The real advantage of bosslessness is minimizing cost and shortening the command chain.
Can a bossless model work for corporations?
Yes, with some caveats. Corporations have a combination of statutory and formal internal organizations. Boss status is created by the company, which create the offices of CEO, etc. arbitrarily and may relate to majority stockholder preferences. (In many cases directors are also directly involved in management.) Those positions of themselves don’t equate to anything but a type of seniority. These people are in the positions of employees, and their value should be considered on that basis. There’s nothing to stop a corporation simply not having a CEO or other bosses as its shareholders see fit.
Does it make sense to go bossless “on principle”?
No. The fact is that businesses, like cars, need drivers. You have to make sure someone’s steering and knows how to work the brakes and gas pedals before getting rid of the current driver.
Does going bossless mean nobody to be scared of?
No. If anything, it means more people to be scared of. Bossless doesn’t mean goof-off time has come. In the industrial co-ops, hiring and firing is done on merit. In these workplaces, non-delivery of work and poor performance is also not very popular with the other workers. They can, and do, complain about it and can actually cause non-performers to get fired.
What about discipline, OHS, equal opportunity, bullying, etc.?
There are no exemptions for these things for any employer in any type of business, boss or not. Bossless workplaces would be under exactly the same laws as other types of organization. The bossless organization, in fact, would have to be very efficient in managing these issues.
Could there be tyrants and psychos in bossless workplaces?
Yes, but with much less power and much less security than they have now. In a truly bossless workplace, they’d lose their immunity to retaliation from workers. Groups centered around tyrants are another issue, but again, in theory, they’d have much less power and much less clout than now.
Can the bossless workplace really happen?
Yes. It will have to be well-organized, with viable roles to take the place of managers and the right levels of accountability.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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