Going Boss-Free: Utopia or ‘Lord of the Flies’?

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The bossless office: Is it the wave of the future or an idea that will always be a utopian dream, given the inevitable intrusion of human nature?

Recent articles in the business press have extolled the benefits of work environments where there are no bosses and no titles, where employees decide among themselves which projects to pursue and which people to hire and fire, and where each employee is responsible for deciding his or her own salary, raises and vacation days.

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.

A bossless office “is a very democratic way of thinking about work,” says Wharton management professor Adam Cobb. “Everyone takes part in the decisions, so it’s not being directed from above. The idea is that the people doing the actual work probably have a better sense of how to get it done than their bosses do. It’s a matter of distributing the expertise to where the expertise actually lies.”

Peer Pressure

On the other hand, Cobb says, an office with no boss or manager overseeing the work flow can be disastrous. He cites an academic paper from several years ago that examined the fate of a small company whose owners decided to try and stave off bankruptcy by letting the employees run the company. “Over time, the workers became more oppressed than when the bosses were there,” notes Cobb. “Everyone became a monitor, constantly checking up on their fellow employees, even setting up a board to track what time people came into work and when they left.”

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At a minimum, Cobb says, bosses do provide one valuable attribute: “They are a common enemy. Workers know the opposition. When employees become self-managed, it’s hard to tell if you are all working together, or if everyone is working against you.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, adds Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell, experiments were done that centered around pushing responsibility down onto horizontal self-managed teams. “Some people felt these were actually more coercive, because rather than having one manager you could ignore, you have all your colleagues on your back all the time. The peer pressure can be very tough.”

Such observations raise the question of what role bosses should play in organizations in the 21st century, given the dramatic growth of the knowledge-based economy and advances in technology that have changed the way employees experience work: They can now communicate with others faster, more easily and without being in the same room or on the same continent.

“There are many ways to be a boss,” notes Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, who has recently been researching a company where the bosses are 26 yearsold and the oldest rank-and-file employee is 25. “I don’t think the bosses were comfortable with the command and control style of management because they didn’t feel they had the credibility for it,” she says. In such situations, the “boss as coach” model can work rather than “boss as dictator.”

The big challenge for a bossless company, she adds, is the way decisions get made. “The speed of decision-making is often slower if you need consensus.” If the decision is an obvious one, then sharing common values will help the group arrive at the right conclusion; if not, eventually one individual must step in and decide. “The buck has to stop with somebody.”

Bosses play other roles that may be hard for groups to perform. They are often responsible for establishing the company’s mission; they may be necessary for presenting the face of the company to the outside world, especially when it comes to IPOs or other forms of raising capital; and they help prevent what economists call “free riders” — employees who shirk their responsibilities and need to be monitored. Social pressure from peers may prevent this, but it may not.

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A bossless office also raises the question of how introverts will fare when the group dynamic requires people to step up and participate in decision-making. “One of the advantages of hierarchy is facilitating efficient coordination,” says Wharton management professor Adam Grant. “When people know who’s in charge, it’s much easier to assign roles and delegate tasks. In a boss-free office, people often face uncertainty about who has authority, status or responsibility for a given project.”

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