A Boss-free Company: Leadership without Bossing People Around

20140603-A Bossless CompanyTrends of a boss-free workplace have been circulating a few years now. Is it just a leadership fad popularized by tech and startup communities? Or does it work?

Treehouse, an online education company changed its organizational structure from a traditional hierarchical leadership to a boss-free workplace. They went from a 61-men organization with tenured employees, interns, and managers to a flat, boss-free workplace. Managers worked alongside their direct reports like a normal employee, sans job titles and managerial privileges.

Sounds amazing for employees, right? It may even lighten the workload of overworked managers.  Everybody wins.

But how does work get done if there’s no boss to decide and monitor work?

Who decides? Who ensures that all trains are running?

For Treehouse, all employees can propose projects or tasks then vote on which items to pursue. Projects with many votes move forward, while those that don’t garner enough support are abandoned.

In this case, leadership or the decision on what projects to work on is in the hands of employees, based on the assumption that they have a better sense of what’s going on and what needs to be done—be it problems, customers and production—compared to managers whose work is often limited to monitoring employees and signing papers.  This is Holocracy.

The Real Holocracy: No Boss Doesn’t Mean No Structure and Absolute Equality between Employees and Bosses

The doubts surrounding Holocracy isn’t due to the unorthodox organizational leadership style it promotes; it’s largely due to the misconceptions surrounding this idea so let’s set the record straight.

First, no boss doesn’t equal to having no leadership or governing body. Responsibility for leading the company is distributed—it didn’t go away. There’s no boss in the traditional sense but there are still rules.

By distributing leadership, employees can vote on matters formerly decided only by managers like projects, workloads, and schedules. Whether these voting privileges extend to high stake decisions or not depend on a company’s openness to feedback—or the trust they have for employees.

Working in a bossless organization doesn’t mean everybody has equal voting rights or powers over what may happen in the organization.  Holocracy makes everyone a leader in his own right, yet remain a follower of others where they have no expertise or jurisdiction.

Leadership, chain-of-command and even influence still play a big role in these unconventional leadership structures but instead of traditional top to bottom and compartmentalized flow of information and decisions, everything is decentralized—transparent even.

This all sounds well and good, but did it work?

Were there any tangible results in companies that adopted this management style?

After six months of going boss-free, Treehouse CEO Carson said the results were “encouraging”, there were growing pains and he admits that it wasn’t for everyone. Some people left.

The motivation and satisfaction of employees increased, four out of five managers felt relieved because of the changes. The fifth manager was hesitant of the change but eventually supported it.

As for employees, they liked the idea of having a boss-free workplace but they still looked for approval from managers. In some ways, this proves employees still want a boss or at least a guide to show them the way.

Aside from Treehouse, online publishing platform Medium and best selling productivity author David Allen’s firm both follow holocratic leadership styles. Meanwhile, Zappos is undergoing a corporate culture change to fully implement this management style by the end of 2014. Unlike Treehouse and other small businesses, Zappos is the first company with a big workforce to adopt this radical method of management.

How to Lead People without Bossing them around, the Holocratic Way

Holocracy isn’t the only answer. You can implement it in full or just take the concepts applicable to your company.

Holocratic leadership and management distribute one another thing: accountability. In traditional hierarchical organizations, liability largely falls on the boss, whether things succeed or get screwed up is the boss’s responsibility. Yes, employees are responsible to do their job but in reality, the boss is still to blame for any screw-ups his direct reports make.

Here’s a brief comparison of traditional and holocratic organizational leadership to help you choose if this management style will work for you:

Traditional top to bottom or bottom-up organization Holocratic management
Progress relies on a leader’s ability to manage direct reports. Each employee is his own manager
Employees rely on their managers for their career path Employees chart their own career path without the unnecessary limitations and roadblocks imposed by managers
Project and task decisions are made by the manager, while direct reports have no say on the subject Employees can initiate projects and vote on other projects they’re willing to support.
Managers make crucial decisions for the team, which could be affected by personal interests. Decisions and accountability is distributed among employees and managers,
The company’s vision and long-term goals are compartmentalized, so the managers only shares bits and pieces of this vision to his team Because decisions on which projects to pursue are done through voting or discussions, the company’s long-term goals will be revealed to everyone. This full transparency breeds more dedicated employees who understand and share the company’s cause.
Problems are handled by managers usually through reprimands, memos and policy changes. When there’s a difference in opinions, those of the managers are usually deemed correct. Problems are handled in a way that reflects the company’s core values.


So what do you think, can this leadership style work in your organization? How do you think company managers in your office would feel if you propose this change? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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