Do we really need bosses?

It’s a loaded question – an existential threat to the status quo in corporate America if there ever was one. But it’s a timely question that’s on people’s minds, from startup founders and millennials entering the workforce to business school professors and management consultants.

The problem, it would seem, is the growing perception that hierarchy is outmoded, employees are disengaged and managers are the workplace equivalent of vestigial organs. Besides, who would argue with the statement that bosses are the bane of human existence … except, of course, the bosses?

Who among us hasn’t been pushed around, bullied or humiliated by some small-minded, self-important jerk who feels compelled to act out his childhood issues and insecurities on unsuspecting employees?

The devil’s advocate would say that companies need executives, managers and supervisors. Without them, who would run our organizations and lead our teams? Who would set goals, make decisions and speak on workers’ behalf? Who would teach and mentor? Who would tell all the worker bees what to do and when to do it?

Good questions. The simple answer, that’s been proposed by popular self-management concepts like holacracy and teal organizations, is that we would. Workers would manage themselves in flat, peer-to-peer organizational structures with no hierarchy, titles or bosses. Everyone will have a say on decisions, like in a democracy.

If that sounds just a little too utopian to be plausible, you’re right — it is. But that hasn’t stopped leaders at companies like W. L. Gore, Zappos, Medium and GitHub from giving up control and letting their organizations more or less run themselves. Even Google tried a flat organizational structure back in 2002.

The problem is that, with rare exception, few of these experiments have worked out over the long haul.

Google gave up on the notion of going bossless after just a few months, realizing that some level of management hierarchy was necessary to effectively scale a fast-growing technology company. That seems to have worked out fairly well for them, to say the least.

Medium recently abandoned holacracy, the controversial management system invented by software developer Brian Robertson. In a post on Medium (where else?), operations chief Andy Doyle said that it was taxing the company’s effectiveness and “getting in the way of the work.” According to a Fortune piece, holacracy “seems to constrain more freewheeling cultures” and “has a certain soul-sucking element.” Ouch.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh began to dabble in both holacracy and teal organizations back in 2013. Two years later, he decided it was time to go all the way and gave employees a choice to stay or go. About 15% of Zappos’ employees opted out, and the company has reportedly been struggling ever since. The radical experiment seems to have left the once beloved retailer in a chronic state of chaos and confusion.

W.L. Gore, a private company that’s best known for its revolutionary GORE-TEX fabric weatherproofing, has had what it calls a team-based, flat lattice organizational structure since its founding in 1958. While there are some novel aspects to the company’s culture and organizational philosophy, it does have managers — it just happens to call them “leaders.” You say tomato, I say tomahto.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that proponents of flat organizations without hierarchy, bosses or titles have their work cut out for them. There appear to be fatal flaws that limit their viability to certain narrow cases. But that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual in the corporate world. At least we’re asking questions. That’s a good thing.

A version of this first appeared on Fortune.com.

Image credit: NBC

  • Brad

    Humans are similar to other social / pack animals like lions, wolves, chimpanzees and apes. Without structure, tension, lack of focus and confusion will exist until a leader is established and then it comes to a sense of order and the cycle of success and survival begins. Cows and sheep on the other hand don’t appear to have a need for a leader, they’re just one big happy family….they are also food for the higher creatures that have adapted to structured systems.

  • Amen!

  • CoastalKerfuffle

    I think there will always be bosses for the simple reason that there will always be a) varying types and levels of ability, and b) varying levels of concern for the existence of a particular organization. When the necessary skills align with the added care and concern, people hand over a degree of authority for decision making for their own self-interest, if not their human laziness.

  • Monty Gry

    The best type of boss(and which I have tried to emulate) is one who allows his employees to think that they are REALLY part of the decision making process….even when they are not. It is not a con, it is pointing them all in the same direction. Given the ideology of the companies “end game” and the parameters of how to get there…a good boss already knows where he wants to go. To make the workers fill in their own blanks(and the company) makes for a happy workforce. “What do you think we should do”? is such an open ended question…and as a leader you can bring everyone along for the ride. It has to allow for some creativity as well. One of the all time great bosses was Thomas Edison. He lorded over an invention factory. Paid super smart guys to come up with things….he was like a conductor.

  • E Van

    I know way too many people who like to get paid to do nothing and will continue doing nothing until someone spots them.

  • Anurodh Sharma

    And a good question at that, Steve !