When the boss is gone

When the boss is gone

“Do you trust the people that work for you?”

This question was first posed to managers in US companies. It was the middle of the 60s and the question was part of a research project into workplaces.

Some of the managers said yes, others said no.

The researchers then followed upon these responses and compared their results to real workplaces. Which managers were correct? The ones who trusted their employees, or the ones who didn’t?

The answer is that they both were.

In workplaces where the manager did not trust the employees morale was low. The upshot of this was that people did not follow orders and the felt forced to come down even harder on them.

On the other hand, where employees were trusted by their manager, the manager’s job was much easier and the company worked well without too much interference from him. There was no whip to speak of but the staff still performed their tasks well.

The boss’ trust was a key aspect of the company culture. And the boss mainly got exactly what he expected (and yes, at the time it was normally a ‘he’).

The results of this research project have been known for over 50 years, but not much has happened in the corporate world since then.

The issue with hierarchy

Until last week Apelöga functioned just like any other company. We had one owner (me), a Vice President (Anders) and several hired co-workers. Decisions were mainly made by the VP, and major strategic decisions were discussed between the owner and the VP. Nothing strange about that.

The idea of a hierarchy being necessary is deeply rooted in business, as if it’s absolutely necessary. In reality there are some huge issues with hierarchical organisations. One issue is that the main decision maker, the VP, is seldom the one who has the best insight into the issue at hand.

Another problem is that the people who are affected the most, i.e the co-workers, have no real way of influencing the decisions.

The real eye opener for me was the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. The author has really gotten to the bottom of how organisations work – starting centuries, even millennia ago and up to today – and found a few companies that have devised a different means of operating. A model that challenges the status quo, and turns it all on its head.

This new model is a completely flat organisation.
No bosses.
No middle-managers.
All decisions are made by the co-workers.

Handing the power back to the co-workers

I was excited to read this and I felt that we had to introduce a boss-free organisation at Apelöga.

Said and done; Anders and I relinquished all formal power and thus completely flattened the hierarchical pyramid.

Decisions at Apelöga are now made through the so called advice process. The method means that anyone can make a decision, for instance purchase a new camera if they feel it’s needed. The decision doesn’t need to be approved by a superior (because really, there are no superiors).

The only catch is this:

Whoever is making a decision first has to consult everyone else who would be affected, and/or from the people who have the right expertise. The bigger the stakes, the more people would have to be consulted.

Then, it’s up to the original decision maker to decide what to do.

Please note that it’s not a question of consensus; everyone doesn’t have to agree. The decision is made by one person, but with regard to the advice and information they’ve been given.

The point is that decisions are now made from the collective knowledge of the company without having to channel it through upper management.

A company grows with its co-workers

My conviction is that everyone benefits and grows from this system, which is exactly what was illustrated in the research I referred to previously.

People tend to fulfil the expectations put on them. The more responsibility you give someone, the more they can blossom and grow in their roles.

But isn’t there a risk that something will go wrong? That someone will take on too much power and make the wrong decision? That there will be division?

Yes, of course there are risks. But there are considerable risks with the classic hierarchy model as well: the boss could make the wrong decision, or completely abuse their power.

For us at Apelöga this model is completely new. I count on it taking some time before we are fully acclimatized, and I’m sure I’ll have reason to discuss it further in the blog.

This is a translation from Swedish of this blogpost.

Adam Haglund

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