It’s Time to Get Rid of All Bosses!

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This topic contains 16 replies, has 12 voices, and was last updated by  Peter Sperry 7 years, 6 months ago.

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  • #181289

    Terrence Hill

    Bet I got your attention with that heading! Did you hear? Zappos is eliminating all of its supervisory positions. The Internet shoe retailer is eliminating job titles, replacing their traditional corporate bureaucracy with a “holacracy,” an organization that revolves around the work that needs to be done rather than the people who do it. It will eliminate traditional managers, do away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. Read all about it in this Washington Post article:

    I know, this concept has been attempted before under the Clinton Administration’s NPR initiative, but my question to YOU is:

    Would this work in your organization? Why/Why Not?

  • #181321

    Peter Sperry

    Sounds good but…..

    1. Does calling a boss a “lead link” really change anything? Yes the employee draws their assignments from the group but who writes their performance evaluation, selects them for promotion etc?

    2. Lincoln’s description of collaborative leadership is as accurate today as it was 150 years ago: ” A mule is a cow designed by committee.”

    3. As the article points out: “truly stamping out the corporate hierarchy may be much more difficult than it seems. Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and author of the forthcoming book “Scaling Up Excellence“, says ‘show me any group of five human beings or five apes or five dogs, and I want to see the one where a status difference does not emerge. It’s who we are as creatures.’ “

    4. How well is it really working at Zappos/Amazon? Yes they are enjoying an unbelievable run-up in stock valuation but after more than a decade in business have yet to actually turn a profit. Their most remarkable accomplishment appears to be maintaining a growth based reinvestment business model which requires constant inflows of investor cash to make up for lack of net positive corporate earnings. At some point investors tend to be more interested in positive ROI than supporting the latest feel good management fad and the bubble bursts.

  • #181319

    Dale M. Posthumus

    I am always open to new management ideas, recognizing no one concept will work in all organizations. I have my doubts about this one, partly because I don’t have all of the details (I read the WaPo article). Managers still exist, but with a different name and different responsibility. The article talks about company executives. Where do they fit into this new structure? How are decisions made – by vote, by consensus, or do the executives still sort out the final decision?

    Terry, your question is appropriate. Even if this works for Zappos, it may not work for many other organizations, especially in govt. WaPo also had an interesting artcle Sunday on the stand-up of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Early attempts to maintain a more open, less hierarchical structure has been somewhat overtaken by what govt agencies are required to do in daily operations separate from their actual missions. The merging of agencies from different departments into the stand-up has brough about some culture clash. An organization’s culture is important.

  • #181317

    Terrence Hill

    Good points Dale! I too read Sunday’s article on the CFPB and was struck by how many of those who joined the startup, only to be quickly disillusioned and leave the organization. Also, it seems like it is tough to combine legacy cultures with startups. We in the government seem to like having lots of layers of management, and I think that it adversely impacts accountability. When all of us are in charge of performing a service, none of us is in charge.

  • #181315

    Mark Hammer

    1) As Peter astute;y notes, we don’t know if it’s working for Zappos, yet. They seem fired up about it, but it’s really an empirical question as to whether it will do anything useful and sustainable for them. Remember, it’s not a best practice unless it can be shown to reliably work in more than one context.

    2) One of the principle duties of “bosses” is to keep abreast of the bigger picture, plan out resources, and divide up the work in a fashion that will assure it gets done efficiently and effectively. When the tasks and the overarchng objectives are patently obvious to all, yeah I suppose “bosses” are not all that critical.

    Consider the last potluck you attended and brought stuff to. There needed to be somebody to make up a list, note all the allergies or other dietary restrictions of attendees (just so that individuals could plan, NOT to direct people) and keep on top of preventing everyone from bringing a rice dish and/or buns. But beyond that, there really didn’t need to be any micromanagement. Everybody with access to the master list had a sense of what they could prepare that would complement the other items, and be edible and appealing for the most people. But nobody really had to be a boss to get the thing done. How feasible that degree of horizontality would be in most organizations or work units will be contingent on the nature of their work.

    One of the other roles of “bosses” is to dovetail with what is getting done, or is expected, in the other work units. Some organizations, like Zappos, are privileged to have a pretty homogenous set of business lines. Many agencies are comprised of many disparate functions/branches, and the activities of one have to dovetail with those of the others. Will all employees understand those needs well enough to be able to anticipate them in a fluid manner? Not likely. That’s why we have hierarchies.

  • #181313

    David B. Grinberg

    That’s a good way to get people’s attention, Terry!

    First, eliminating all managerial/supervisory positions from gov would probably cause some employees or offices to go “hog-wild” — so to speak.

    The general gov management structure is already being incrementally diluted due to greater use of digital-mobile technology by employees (such as teleworking). In time, the virtual workplace will probably be equal to or greater than the brick-and-mortar traditional workplace in terms of where employees are actually setting up shop.

    Second, there’s a perception, if not a reality, that many gov agencies have a disproportionate ratio of managers/supervisors to non-supervisory staff (or, looked at another way, higher grade levels compared to lower ones).

    This begs the question of what the correct ratio (range) should be — if any — and why? Moreover, it would interesting to know the current gov-wide ratio, which I assume can be found among the data on OPM’s website.

    Good discussion, Terry!

  • #181311

    Eric Melton

    I could easily see this being used in order to pay people less… but the functions of supervising, managing, and administration cannot disappear.

  • #181309

    Paul Alberti

    Back in 2012 the Valve Employee handbook was making its rounds across the internet – ( It was all about innovation, creativity and a streamlined company. very interesting read, but I have not heard about it in a while. I found an article from a former employee at Valve – and the issues of a flat organization

    I think there are problems at both ends of the spectrum – over supervison and under supervision. If supervisors found a middle ground- trust your staff, establish the vision and intent and then let them do what they were hired to do. Most people want the organization to succeeed and will do what is necessary to get there.

  • #181307

    Dale M. Posthumus

    Fully agree, Paul. Teddy Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” I think all of us would add “and women” to the principle of this quote.

    There ultimately is a role for all types of management, but we must understand when and how to apply them. Flat organizations are easy when you have ten people, not so when you have 100 or 1,000. Management style may also change for certain situations within an organization, such as an emergency situation, a need to act very fast.

  • #181305

    Paul Alberti

    Dave – a higer grade does not necessarily equate to supervisor. There are alot of higher grades but not all are supervisors, I hope they are managers and leaders of something though! I would like to think the grade level reflects the level of responsibility of the position – but after 27 years in DC, I know grade assignemnt is not a perfect science. If you move outside the beltway I think the grade levels reset to a more logical balance.

    Sometimes I think we confuse the positons of Supervisor/Manager/Leader, anyone at any grade can be a leader and a manager – only some can be supervisors.

  • #181303

    John L. Waid

    These kinds of ideas forget that in any large organization at least there are two hierarchies. there is the formal hierarchy reflected on the wire chart, big boss (he has the Big Picture in his office and the Regular Mechanic works on his car) on down to peons at the bottom (the ones getting peed on, hence the name). Then there is the informal hierarchy — the one that reflects how things actually get done and who does them. In a perfect organization, those two match, but often they do not.

    Getting rid of the formal hierarchy does nothing about the informal one. As Peter says, as humans we organize ourselves. Someone has to provide direction, and someone has to enforce it, otherwisde the organization loses focus.

    Mark forgot one of the purposes of bosses — to intercept the, um, stuff rolling down the hill from On High and deflect as much of it as possible from hitting his people so they can do their jobs. Get rid of bosses, and all of upper managment’s brilliant ideas fall on the workers who are thus distracted from actually working to deal with management’s latest brilliant initiative.

    Graeme Edge, drummer for the Moody Blues, once said in a interview that the job of a drummer in a rock band is to try to herd all those turtles up front and make sure they end up in the same place at the same time. Absent some sort of supervisor, the people on the ground all turn into turtles (or, if you will, cats) each one trying to find his way to the light and many of them not making it, causing much damamge to the business’ ability to accomplish its mission. If the organization does not provide a boss, the workers will informally create one themselves.

  • #181301

    This topic did call my attention. Definitely, in any organizations, we need supervision, management and leadership for sure. I do believe that supervisory and employee ratios need to be studied across the federal government to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic levels and to reduce compensation costs, hence reduce overall Federal operating expenses. The Federal government is changing to reflect societal and economic conditions. The workforce is smaller and employees are being expected to do more and more for less and less. The workplace operating structure has shifted to telework environment from the traditional working environment so the need to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic levels seems to be the next step. I do think that the Federal workforce needs to be positioned and structured to become a high performance workplace culture, and depending on the occupations, the supervisory and employee reporting ratios may vary. Streamlining or reducing bureaucratic reporting levels may make sense in this current reduced Federal budget, economic and changing work place structure conditions. I still believe that there are many organizational factors need to be reviewed to ensure that the Federal government will be cost effective while meeting high standards of public service. I strongly believe that unnecessary bureaucratic reporting levels will cost the government and taxpayers more, may create corruption but may not necessarily create an effective and efficient Federal workforce. A review of organizational structure, performance culture and supervisory and employee ratios are crucial in this changing times. OPM may need to take the lead and make it a strategic management agenda for 2014-2015! Thanks for the post. Bad supervisors should have a reason for additional concern. Good supervisors can help make this Nation strong!

  • #181299

    Sylvia McDaniel

    Similarly, back in the 90s, Total Quality Management (TQM) was introduced to American businesses. TQM was derived from Japanese business ideals. The idea was to create flattened or horizontal organizations where teams rise to the occasion, teams receive the praise (rather than just the individual), they make decisions (consensus), etc. In other words, TQM prided itself on using a “we” approach to business rather than a “me” approach or pyramid structure like the United States business environment. The Japanese cultural thrived within the horizontal structure because their cultural ideals are much different than ours in United States. TQM died a slow death because most American companies couldn’t inspire their employees to embrace this method over the long term. It was noted that fully embracing TQM would take up to two years to shift a culture and its old way of thinking. We tried this in a healthcare company I worked for years ago and the team resorted back to what was familiar – lot’s of chiefs with few soldiers. By the way, we still had a CEO, a board and some executive team staff. They refused to fully immerse themselves in the effort but demanded that line and support staff participate.

    In response to your question, I’ve worked in a top down work environment for 30 years. Not much has changed during my time in government, small business, nonprofit, healthcare, broadcasting or public access. Frankly, I do not foresee government adapting this concept. The hierarchical structure is as entrenched as operating as a bureaucracy. Furthermore, the heads of state use the management/executive structure to make agency head/executive appointments, which is an avenue for rewarding political favors. From there, agency heads hire additional managers – people they owe favors too or to appease a person in power. And lets not forget the power and authority that comes with most management positions – helps to stroke one’s ego and offers a chance to participate in a closed group (management meetings where information may or may not be shared with the larger body).

    Frankly, we live in a culture where the person at the top gets the recognition and the biggest rewards. Our cultural thrives on recognition and rewards for doing something rather than simply doing it for the sake of doing what needs to be done without praise. I know there are exceptions, but this has been my experience. I even know employees who have excepted a management role simply to gain the title with no step increase. I can bet in most corporations (with high paying CEOs), as well as government executives, would not be willing to go this route. They would have to “share the power.” This would mean shifting our ideals to a humanistic mindset where we recognize that all people are created equal – in the workplace.

    As an FYI, during my 30 years of employment I served at the executive level until recently. In some organizations, I attempted to institute what I called an inverted pyramid approach where I led from behind so to speak and allowed the team to be out front, which meant sharing the praise with the team and/or allowing them to take the praise. This was a challenge because it definitely teaches you humility. However, my bosses and believe it or not, many employees did not like this approach. They preferred top down – someone to take the hits and play the politics. I have to say, I don’t miss it.

  • #181297

    John L. Waid

    Employees might love to take some of the credit but are deathly afraid to take the heat for making a mistake or worse taking the heat for a mistake someone else made. Government is run in a culture of fear where no one wants to take the blame. How has the goals of our current political “leaders” been characterized — garner credit and deflect blame? If order to be an effective leader, one has to do both. How many times, however, have we heard of someone in authority making a mistake that got him in trouble, looking for and finding a scapecoat and rolling his head, and then when the heat was off rewarding that person for understanding how the game is played and being a good sport?

    I was in the Air Force when it “adopted” TQM. We received extensive training in just the concepts Sylvia describes. Of course, letting the guys on the ground help set policy is anathema to the military way of doing theings. Although I retired before TQM was fully implmented, I wonder if it went anywhere.

  • #181295

    Kevin Lanahan

    Would this work in my agency? In smaller work groups, it already does. We all pitch in across silos to get stuff done. However, if there is not a clear sense of purpose and definition of goals, it ain’t gonna work.

    And the holacracy still relies on very clear communication from the top down, something that doesn’t always happen in government. As long as leadership isn’t ego-driven at the expense of being mission-driven, this can work.

    After that, isn’t this just a matter of empowering workers and eliminating needless layers of management?

  • #181293

    John L. Waid

    Agree completely with Kevin’s last comment except that the perception of what is “needless” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders are persons operating in the level of management under scrutiny. Guess what conclusion they will reach.

    Civil service looks more like a diamond than a triangle because managers laudably want to reward good workers, but the only way they can do that is to try to get them promoted. they can’t get a worker more money or time off or such. So, they create some new supervisory job and promote the worker into that all too often exchanging a good worker for a lousy supervisor. Changing the way civil servants are paid, possibly enlarging the step increase range and spreading it out over a longer period of time will do a lot to dampen down the impulse to create unnecessary levels of management.

  • #181291

    Earl Rice

    This would never work in my Agency. To many egos, to many middle managers, to much bureaucracy. It would take 50 years for the “climate” to change. And, by that time, ideas like this one would have changed 50 times, and there would be whole new fads. Further, no body is going to tackle the task of just throwing the Title 5 merit based system out the window.

    At this point, the company has basically created a 10% employee base float pool. When you go to a 90% “float pool”, things are just not going to work so well. And, there will still be supervisors, they even state that.

    Think of all the times in your life that things failed because the leadership/supervisors/managers were just not up to the task. Well, now lets just not even have any direction. Also, there is a far cry from providing governmental services, and selling shoes and clothes.

    I guess that is one of the frustrating things becoming more common place in the Federal Government Service. Every time somebody comes up with some sort of a wild idea about how their company should be run, half the people in the Government start saying how great it is, even though the Federal Government has millions of employees, and they haven’t seen the end result of how things turned out. I worked for a boss like that once. Was more interested in cotton candy (even rented a machine to make it on the Government dime…CFO was not amused)…cotton candy is nothing but hot air and sugar by the way, than the true “meat and potatoes” of getting the job done.

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