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Published 10 August 2012 07:13, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40
Tribal instincts ... One of the challenges for business is to find ways to reinvent the role of manager. Part of that is recognising that a manager is working among equals, rather than in a hierarchy
A bossless office sounds like heaven doesn’t it? Unless, of course, you happen to be the leader, or aspire to be one.
There is an age-old conflict between a manager’s or owner’s need for control and a worker’s desire for freedom. Research shows that self-determination produces better results, but experiments with dispensing with hierarchy have sometimes created “rudderless ships”.
A conclusion drawn from a piece this week, republished by the Australian School of Business,is that self-managed work groups work best if they have good and frequent feedback to keep them on track.
Wharton Business School management professor Adam Cobb says bossless offices are a very democratic way of thinking about work.
“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,” he says in the article, which originated from the Wharton Business School.
But, if you are not careful, you could end up with something resembling the savagery of British school boys in Lord of the Flies.
“Over time, the workers became more oppressed than when the bosses were there”, says 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”.
If nothing else bosses provide the benefit of being the 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.”
Strangely enough, in spite of our egalitarian culture, Australian companies have not shown any daring in experimenting with flat management structures. To get good case studies, we look to the US and Europe.
In the UK, there is the highly successful retailing business, the John Lewis Partnership, where the company exists in a trust for the benefit of its 81,000 workers and their families and decisions are voted upon by employees (known as partners).
While democratic decision-making is often viewed as cumbersome and slow, this company has been regularly outperforming its rival department stores and supermarkets.
A recent article in the Financial Times quotes John Lewis executive Peter Cox, who wrote a history of the group after retiring in 2003. He says the company “has had very sharp management in the past 20 years. Before then, it was liable to coast.”
He points to “very sharp trading teams” and, as an example of critical decision-making, its acquisition of Buy-com in 2002 “as the foundation of the John Lewis internet trading business – then lagging, now massive”.
At WL Gore & Associates in the US (manufacturer of Gore-ex), there are no organisational charts, no chains of command and workers (associates) can choose which leader they would like to follow.
Peers decide on salaries and the company is regularly at the top of “best places to work” surveys.
At Southwest Airlines (which is 82 per cent unionised and is said to be the world’s most profitable airline), baggage clerks are given the freedom to decide how to solve a customer’s complaint on the spot, without having to say, “’wait while I consult my boss”.
Management professor at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, Stephen Courtright, says self-managed teams can “foster greater customer satisfaction”.
“When employees have a degree of self-management, and therefore a greater sense of accountability, it means their motivation is based not on their standing with the manager or boss, but because they identify with the work,” says Courtright.
One of the challenges for business is to find ways to reinvent the role of manager. Part of that is recognising that a manager is working among equals, rather than in a hierarchy.
A manager’s job is to support the people around them, helping them to do their best work, motivating them and clearing obstacles from their path. This is the role described by the term “servant leadership”.
In a flat structure, managers are no better or worse than the people managed. They just have a different job to do.
In organisations such as 3M, there is a dual path to promotion. Those who are technically brilliant at what they do rise to the top of the salary structure, without having to take on “management” responsibilities.
The managers of these highly talented people may be paid significantly less than their charges.
“There are many ways to be a boss,” notes Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard in the Wharton article. In some circumstances, the “boss as coach” model can work rather than “boss as dictator”.