Illustrator: Ashley Siebels
There has been a vogue in recent years for abolishing the old, toxic hierarchies in business, but know this: getting rid of the boss doesn’t mean getting rid of conflicts.
It’s a point that more companies will have to respect as “leaderless” or “self-governing” teams come into vogue. The 2016 edition of The HOW Report by LRN showed that 8% of organizations were “manifesting Self-Governance” in 2016, compared to 3% in 2012.
The report shed light on how “self-governing organizations” operate, very much focusing on the positive. They were defined as groups where “employees are inspired by a desire for significance and encouraged to act as leaders regardless of role.” The report praised leaderless teams because they resist “temptations to abuse status.”
“As a result, employees pursue the biggest challenges, take the boldest risks, and fortify an organization to be resilient over the long term,” the report said.
Many fans of self-governing teams agree, even elevating the flat management structure to an art.
Addressing trouble without a leader
The key question is: how do you make it work?
Like any company group or organization, self-managed teams are sure to run into issues that make it difficult to work with other members. And without a manager to mediate, those fights can quickly get out of hand.
A Harvard Business Review article called “How Self-Managed Teams Can Resolve Conflict” by Amit Maimon breaks down solutions for “flat or self-managed teams.”
Maimon has three good pieces of advice about managing team conflicts. The first: quantify the impact of the problem, to see how big it is and what resources it might take to fix it. The second: “prioritize accountability over blame,” to avoid pointing fingers and get to the root of the problem, and “encourage openness to productive conflict” so that the air is cleared.
Teams without a boss have to manage each other well
But there are some potential drawbacks to leaderless teams.
For one thing, teams without bosses still have to do the boss’s work: raising morale, distributing assignments, coordinating tasks. But team members don’t get paid more for it.
Self-managed teams tend to trust each other less, according to a 2007 study of 35 student teams by Claus W. Langfred in the Academy of Management Journal.
He later acknowledged that despite its title, “ironically, some management is still required when it comes to self-management, including training in conflict management techniques.” Langfred also warned against leaderless teams that have low autonomy for individual members.
When people miss having a boss
Online shoe and clothing company Zappos uses Holacracy, a “self-organization method” reportedly designed to “create a dynamic workplace where everyone has a voice and bureaucracy doesn’t stifle innovation.”
“Managers no longer exist. The company’s 1,500 employees define their own jobs. Anyone can set the agenda for a meeting,” Gelles wrote. (At one such meeting, the team members checked in on their state of mind, with one revealing she was distracted by her hands smelling like the oranges she had at lunch.)
But “brewing employee discontent” reportedly surfaced at Zappos, and “critical issues like how to hire, fire and pay people in a company with no job titles have emerged as sticking points.”
While describing the negative reception of the CEO’s introduction of Holacracy’s management style, the New York Times noted, “at Zappos, it seems that many wish Mr. Hsieh had never made the choice. Some people want a boss after all.”