Waking up to life in a managerless world

12 November 2013 -


As more companies declare that hierarchy is dead and the future is flat, is this the beginning of the end for managers in the workplace? Could we survive – even thrive – in a leaderless environment?

We can thank our industrial ancestors for the construction of workplace hierarchy. The 19th century bore many inventions, but few were as enduring as The Manager, and the top-down model that goes with them. Structures since then remained largely unchanged until the digital revolution of the 1990s.

That decade brought us Dolly the sheep, the World Wide Web and the beginning of the elimination of outdated workplace structures. Smaller, independent companies emerged that had the power to make their own rules. Many adopted flatter, more collaborative frameworks with fewer management levels and, in some cases, none at all.

One early example is Valve, a US video game development and digital distribution company whose unconventional management structure caused a stir when its employee handbook appeared online. Founded in 1996 by two former Microsoft developers, the organisation began and remains flat. Valve’s handbook is clear enough: “We don’t have any management,” it says. “And nobody reports to anybody else. We do have a president, but even he isn’t your manager.”

Such a structure, or lack thereof, is in place to encourage autonomy and spur innovation. Employees initiate their own projects, working in self-allocated teams where everyone is invited to contribute and critique.

Valve’s collaborative style even extends to its hiring process. All employees are able to suggest additional team members and partake in interviewing candidates. Company decision making is done by consensus and success is determined simply by product output.

It may seem too good to be true, but Valve isn’t the only organisation to be prospering under these utopian ideals.

Californian digital marketing agency Ciplex started out with a standard top-down management model but, in an article entitled “Want your company to grow? Fire your managers”, founder Ilya Pozin explained why the traditional structure was not getting the most out of his employees.

Pozin made dynamic changes to flatten the company structure. He began by levelling pay – raising wages where needed, but not lowering any. The company became team-centric by splitting into sub-groups driven by collectively established goals.

Employees have come to appreciate the trust and flexibility given to them, responding with company loyalty. “Grow your company by getting rid of the hierarchy and you will create a company people love working at,” says Pozin. This is no doubt helped by flexible working hours and unlimited annual leave.

Creating a flatter future

San-Franciscan software developer GitHub also operates in a relatively managerless habitat, but recognises the need for some degree of leadership. Deeming “manager” to be a “very bad term”, according to chief executive Tom Preston-Werner, GitHub prefers to appoint a PRP (primary responsible person) to oversee each sub-team, but not interfere.

Valve, Ciplex and GitHub may appear to be almost unique examples of a managerless structure, possible only in the radical world of digital enterprise, but they are not alone. In fact, the flattening of organisational structures is also a reality much closer to home, and not just in the private sector.

Austerity measures in the UK have led local authorities to make several structural changes, including the reduction of managers. Mike Gregson, senior HR practitioner at Birmingham City Council, explains that in the past 12 months strategic directors at the council have been reduced from five to four, with the possibility of more cuts.

A handful of smaller councils are taking more drastic steps. Selby, Wyre Forest and Eastbourne councils have dramatically condensed management positions by reducing the number of directors and senior staff.

While the motivation for this is primarily economic, Gregson argues that there are many other benefits to come out of the flattening process. “Lessening the layers of bureaucracy leads to greater autonomy and accountability,” he says. “This enables authorities to move forward more easily and make quicker decisions.”

It is important to note that those making these flatter structural changes – in the public and private spheres – are smaller organisations with fewer employees.

Leadership reworked

Asked whether larger bodies could achieve the same results, Gregson admits that in bigger organisations things are less black and white. “They have to work harder to move forward and need to have the right type of leadership from the beginning.”

According to Gregson, that involves leaders who tap into the abilities and creativity of their workforce. Professor Jonathan Perks, a leadership adviser for chief executives, is likely to concur. With more than 33 years of leadership experience, Professor Perks began his career in the military, where he first faced the concept of a leaderless environment.

Perks initiated leaderless tasks as commander training exercises. “At first there was a scrum – everyone would talk over each other – but then one person dominated naturally as he or she had the specific expertise necessary,” he explains.

The self-starting leader changed with the task in hand – with the most expert typically acting in a facilitative role, collaborating with the group and supporting them through agreed steps. “The ones that shone were those genuinely interested in others,” reveals Perks. “Leaders that bully or intimidate don’t get anywhere. It is as much about gaining followership as it is about leadership.”

To succeed, the group has to show willingness, and that comes down to the intricacies of the brain. The amygdala (a set of neurons in the brain) detects and responds to threat. If a manager intimidates an employee, that person is likely to freeze, run away or retaliate.

Being consensual is key, but, even in Valve’s alternative universe, underlying management is in evidence. Former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth described the company as having a “pseudo-flat structure”, with unofficial managers lurking within the group. Perhaps a life without leaders cannot exist.

There needs to be a supportive environment so people can solve and think well, otherwise the amygdala floods the brain,” Perks says. Leaderless environments are a good starting point, but ultimately, Perks believes, someone will step up or things won’t get done.

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