Elon Musk recently sent an email to all Tesla employees warning against the stalling effect that managers can have when they act as literal “middle men” in communication processes. Some have jumped at the chance to validate the argument that managers are inherently bad for organizations. This management by control model has inspired many movies, sitcoms, and cartoons. Whether it’s boss Bill Lumberg asking about the memo in Office Space or the Pointy Haired Boss (PHB) from the Dilbert’s cartoons, we can all identify with these nightmare caricatures. Why, then, do we still have them?
It’s hard to argue that the pace of business is the same as it was even a decade ago.
Some traditional conceptualizations of leadership and management relegate decision making, particularly strategic decisions, to the top of the organization. Individuals further down the chain can be largely left in the dark, left to execute on the decisions made above as instructed. Although you could argue that model was always limited, the era of the “choiceless doer” may indeed be behind us. It’s hard to argue that the pace of business is the same as it was even a decade ago. If Musk is right and managers are just slowing things down, perhaps managers have outlived their utility in organizations.
Reflect for a moment on your own experience with managers. Who was your PHB? No doubt, you’ve probably experienced the dark side of management. It’s no wonder then that some have been moved to eliminate them altogether or questioned whether they add any value. A number of organizations and organizational theorists have suggested that organizations would be better off without managers. Bill Gore described the lattice organization but similar concepts include holacracy, and teal organizations. Common among all of these paradigms is a restructuring of work to less hierarchical, more democratized systems of organization or self-management.
Would management cease to exist if we eliminated managers?
Proof that managers (or management) matter(s)
Google previously experimented with self-managed teams (which, as they describe, did not go well) and conducted a study to prove that managers don’t matter. In the end, Google found what others have shown — managers do matter. They can matter for the better or they can matter for the worse. They developed a list of 8 management behaviors that better managers engage in. They then set out to help develop better managers by focusing on those behaviors.
Research from the 1950s known as the Ohio State studies identified consideration and initiating structure as the basic components of leader effectiveness, a robust finding verified over time. Consideration is the degree to which leader behaviors show concern and respect for followers, look out for their welfare, and express appreciation and support (Bass & Stogdill, 1990). Initiating Structure is the degree to which leaders define and organize their role and the roles of followers, are oriented toward goal attainment, and establish well-defined patterns and channels of communication (Fleishman, 1962; Fleishman & Hunt, 1973).
These two themes — care for people and care for tasks — show up again and again. Decades later, John Campbell and colleagues proposed a model of performance applicable to all jobs. In 2012, Campbell conducted a comprehensive review of performance research and practice across nearly three decades and identified 14 factors (6 leadership and 8 management) that can be used in selection, training and development, job design, and performance assessment for leaders across organizational level – including peer leadership. In that sense, leadership and management performance exist independently of structure.
The trend toward holacracy
Best selling author and business school professor, David Burkus, aptly named a chapter in his book Under New Management, “Fire the Managers.” Some companies have done just that, which may offer great case studies to assess the impact of eliminating managers.
Zappos caused a media frenzy by experimenting with holacracy. In one 2016 article, they describe going from 150 managers to 350 “Lead Links.” Their message is that this more distributed model allows for more freedom and autonomy. As Harvard Business School professor, Ethan Bernstein, stated though “You may not take a person and put a job description against them and say this person is a manager. But there is a lot of management going on, in fact, perhaps management is even more important in an organization with a work chart, as opposed to an org chart, because there is more to manage.” Taking it one step further, Burkus asserts that “‘managerless” means everyone is a manager.”
In fairness, Lead Links represent fluid roles rather than static jobs. To that point, you could argue that what these three cases show is that there are valuable management and leadership functions that are, and even need to be, performed regardless of the structure. Managers do more than just slow down communication. They attend to both the needs of the people and the tasks for which they are responsible.
The dynamic org chart: distributed leadership and agile teams
Valve Software was a visible and relatively early adopter of the manager-free organization. Valve reasoned that they hire intelligent, innovative, talented individuals; if to flourish, they can’t have people telling them what to do. They may propose and lead projects, track and organize the work of their peers on the projects. They also evaluate their teammates and provide feedback, contribute to compensation setting, and participate in hiring. But all of those tasks sound a lot like management.
These dynamic, self-managed, cross-functional teams are becoming increasingly popular. They have long been commonplace in certain sectors such as consulting or in forward leaning organizations within traditional sectors, such as the General Electric aircraft engine assembly facility in Durham, North Carolina. We still have more to learn about how to optimize self-managed teams but there can certainly be positive benefits for both the team members and outcomes.
The shift away from hierarchical management structures is likely to spread as the pressure for organizations to be more agile and creative mounts. This move is unlikely to remove the demand for management capacity. In fact, in the era of shared or distributed leadership, we may not have the luxury of focusing development efforts on a small number of high potentials. The demand for the capacity to manage, and even lead is expanding. In this new era, how can we ensure that the core of the organization has the capacity to care for not just their own tasks, but for each other? The bulk of Google’s eight behaviors that good managers engage in are more about people than tasks.
Traditional training is at it’s best when the goal is to increase knowledge. But it’s poorly suited to make significant, sustained improvements in a person’s internal resources and soft skills that relate to behaviors such as expressing concerns for teammates or empowering others. This is where coaching shines.
The future of leadership development in a distributed future
With or without them, management and leadership demands will persist.
So are organizations better off without managers? With or without them, management and leadership demands will persist. The shadow side of management is real and traditional leadership development has fallen short. We need new models to strengthen our ability to build leadership and managerial capacity — at scale. Shifting the management mindset from control to empowerment and support won’t be easy, but may be a more fruitful path than trying to rid organizations of management.
Original art by Theo Payne.