An office without a boss – is it the best idea ever or Lord of the Flies waiting to happen?
“It’s not a Lord of the Flies situation,” assures Stephen Courtright of the inevitable comparison between this management trend and the classic novel where lack of formal supervision leads to chaos. Courtright, a management professor who specializes in employee empowerment at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, says so-called “boss-less” offices, where instead of the traditional boss-employee hierarchy, workers function in self-governing teams and employees are empowered to make key decisions, result in higher performance.
“In a traditional office hierarchy, employees report to a boss higher in the chain of command. But in a ‘boss-less’ office, your most important boss is your peer. And you, in turn, are your peers’ boss,” explains Courtright, whose expertise also includes leadership development and team effectiveness. “It’s a form of self-leadership where everyone can feel like a leader.”
Courtright, co-author of several studies on self-leadership and employee empowerment, clarifies that “boss-less” shouldn’t be taken too literally, saying, “Companies, of course, have owners and there is still management in place. But instead of having to check with the boss on every decision, employees are given the information and tools they need to make important decisions without having to check with the boss first. It’s a more efficient process, so in a customer service-based business, for example, the speed of service is better.”
He points to Southwest Airlines as an example of employee empowerment in the service industry.
“Their ticket clerks ― the employees that are ‘on the front lines’ ― are in the best position to make on-the-spot decisions regarding passengers,” he explains. “If they have to stop everything to go to a supervisor, not only does it take time, but there may be miscommunication, and that causes a barrier between the company and the client. Instead, the clerks are given a set of principles about making the customer happy, and then are empowered to make key decisions at the ticket counter.”
In addition to customer service industries, offices where the employees are hired for their creativity and innovation, such as tech companies, are often run successfully under the boss-less model.
“Google is a great example,” Courtright contends. “They structure people to be on self-managing teams. They also allow 20 percent of every employee’s work-time to work on their own ideas. So, even the employees on the lowest rung of a company can contribute ideas that can become huge. Many work on designing new apps; they’ve come up with very successful apps like Google Maps.”
Courtright says the model can work well in manufacturing, too. “These companies are traditionally hierarchical,” he notes, “but some have given workers on the floor more room to be creative, make improvements in product quality, and make decisions without having the boss breathing down their necks.”
In the study “Self-Leadership: A Multilevel Review,” published in the Journal of Management, Courtright and co-authors Greg L. Stewart, University of Iowa, and Charles C. Manz, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that self-leadership at the individual level is consistently related to improvement in both work attitudes and performance.
In “Antecedents and Outcomes of Psychological and Team Empowerment,” a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Courtright and co-authors Scott E. Seibert, University of Iowa, and Gang Wang, Florida State University, found teams of individuals who feel collectively empowered achieve far higher performance than teams who otherwise do not feel empowered.
And in the study “Peer-Based Control in Self-Managing Teams,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Courtright, Stewart and Murray R. Barrick of Texas A&M, found that when peers determined each other’s raises and bonuses rather than a traditional boss, both individuals and collective teams showed improved performance.
Courtright says in order to get a boss-less office rolling, “it requires the entire company to be on board.”
And hiring the right people is critical, he adds. “You don’t want a person whose goal is to climb up the chain of command; a boss-less organization is not for them because there is simply less room to move up. Instead you want someone that measures success by the quality of the work they get to engage in ― work that is both challenging and creative.”
Lastly, a boss-less office works best with employees that are “high on agreeableness,” notes Courtright. “It’s important to have people that can function well on a team, as your teammates — the people you’re working with day-in and day-out — are now your boss.”
Not all industries can flourish under the boss-less model, says the researcher, pointing to fast-food as an example. “In a fast-food chain where you’ve got a certain set of processes that have to be followed by every employee and you want to have a product that is equal from one place to another, it may not work very well. It is far more likely to work in more fluid and dynamic businesses.”
Courtright concludes by saying he hopes more businesses consider the boss-less approach because, “when you look at companies that have consistent growth over a long period of time, they are often following this model. When employees feel empowered, it is better for individual employees and for teams collectively in the organization. Consequently, it is better for the company as a whole.”
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