Tangled power lines

Can Companies Perform Better Without Bosses?

It sounds like an indefensible position, but many are giving Holacracy a go. Here’s why.

By Brian Robertson

Every horrible boss has the same horrible traits: They wield power aggressively, suppress creativity, micromanage, and rule by intimidation. The really bad ones have inspired organizations to either restructure their hierarchies—like Morningstar, the world’s largest tomato producer, and outdoor apparel company Patagonia—or toy with getting rid of bosses altogether. 

If you’re the head honcho and your employees are secretly staging a mutiny against you, I’ll take some of the blame. Although Peter Drucker first called for “management by self-control” to replace “management by domination” in 1954, the push may not be as prevalent today if I hadn’t created the system now known as Holacracy in 2001. 

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In 2007, I founded a new company to support organizations transitioning to Holacracy, which the Harvard Business Review called “the best-known and most fully specified” self-management system. More than 1,000 companies have since used it, including Zappos, the David Allen Company, and teams or departments within several Fortune 500 companies. 

It’s easy to acknowledge the limitations of traditional hierarchy—the concentration of power in the hands of a few, the inevitable politics that ensue, the lack of motivation further down the pyramid—but the alternative is a much tougher sell: When you hear business structure described in terms of flat, self-organizing, cooperative, or organic, the image that comes to mind is anarchy. 

You may picture an organization like yours, only the inmates are running the asylum. Nobody knows what they’re supposed to be doing, simple decision-making requires endless meetings in an attempt to reach consensus, productivity grinds to a halt, and chaos reigns. Suddenly bosses don’t seem so bad.

And I get those concerns. I’ve tried running a flat organization with consensus, but all we did was hold meetings instead of do actual work. What I learned is that bosses still do plenty of great things. In fact, these five functions of a manager are essential to the success of any company—but they don’t actually need to be performed by a boss. 

Best Boss Behavior #1: Keep Things Moving

A good boss is like a cheerleader mixed with a traffic cop. He or she inspires employees to keep moving, assigns tasks, sets deadlines, and tracks productivity. You’d think that if you take away the boss, the employees will just slack off, but that doesn’t happen in a robust self-management system.

The system grants people much greater authority over their domains of responsibility, and the result is that most people take ownership of their roles and step up to drive their own workflows without needing a boss to motivate or discipline them. In other words, each person is empowered to become the “boss” of their own roles. 

Best Boss Behavior #2: Create Clarity

Bosses define the structure of the team: who’s doing what, what roles need filling, and who gets to make which decisions. The problem is centralizing responsibility is hard work, and a lot of bosses deprioritize it or just don’t do it at all. They’d rather jump in themselves to solve a crisis than take the time to figure out how to never personally deal with it again.

In Holacracy, we call this Governance, and it’s a process that everyone is invited to engage in. We use a defined decision-making process to refine and streamline the way teams work together.

Governance generates a clear role-based structure for the team, and then continually evolves it to fit the changing realities of the business. Everyone, in a sense, becomes more entrepreneurial, which in turn creates and defines the key processes.

At the same time, governance also allows teams to perform common boss functions like hiring, firing, compensation, and performance reviews. Rather than vesting these significant powers in a single person, they can be entrusted to peer-to-peer assessment processes that the team creates together. 

How Holacracy Is Different

Best Boss Behavior #3: Improve Alignment

A good boss should act as a rudder for a team, keeping it on course and ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction. Without bosses, however, what’s to stop every employee from simply pursuing his or her own agenda?

Enter Governance again. The process can be used to make the expectations attached to a role explicit so that everyone knows what they and their colleagues are accountable for. And if something goes out of alignment, Governance meetings provide a venue for self-correcting and getting clarity.

You can also easily maintain alignment with a clear and compelling purpose—for your company, your team, and your individual role. Such purposes give people something to align around that’s not just “the boss,” and serve to direct and constrain decisions and any individual agendas that emerge. 

Best Boss Behavior #4: Invite Trust

Trust is the glue that holds teams together. But without a boss to create a safe and creative environment, there’s a danger that people will run roughshod over one another and the whole team will suffer. That’s why a self-managing organization must have a robust set of rules and processes that protect each individual’s space and authority to fill his or her roles.

One of the most common criticisms of Holacracy when people first encounter it is that there are too many rules. The meeting processes, for example, are very specific about who can speak and when other people are allowed to comment and respond. Far from being constraining or limiting, these rules are in fact what create a safe space for people to seek solutions and be creative. 

How Holacracy Works

Best Boss Behavior #5: Liberate and Empower

The forward-thinking bosses who understand the limitations and consequences of a top-down hierarchy try to liberate and empower their employees. In fact, business consultant Marcus Buckingham, whose research with the Gallup Organization involved more than 80,000 managers, contends the one key quality that sets great managers apart is the ability to release people—so that “the unique contribution, the unique needs, and the unique style of each employee can be given free rein.”

The irony: You can only be so empowered if someone else empowers you. 

Self-managing organizations have the potential to truly empower and liberate, because the rules of the game grant each person authority to play their part and freedom to fill their roles without needing permission. When the structure and processes of an organization are designed to hold space for everyone to have and use power, and do not allow anyone to co-opt that power, then we no longer need to rely on bosses who empower others. 

How You Can Be Better Than a Boss

In our political and social systems, we’ve long since learned that certain powers are better held by a process such as a legal system than a single dictator. So why have we been so slow to follow suit in the workplace? The promise of self-management is that organizations can avoid the inevitable fallout of vesting power in highly fallible, often limited, and occasionally ego-driven individuals. (Hey, we’ve all been there.)

To deliver on this promise, however, these new systems cannot casually throw out all structure and leave people to figure out how to navigate in a bossless wilderness. They need to recognize and respect the critical functions that traditional managers serve, and create robust, well-thought-out systems to perform these functions. And then, of course, execute them better than even the best boss could do alone. 

Brian Robertson is the founder of Holacracy, which began as an experiment in 2001 to answer a simple question: What gets in the way of people working together as effectively as possible? Since then, he’s written extensively about the concept, which is used by a thousand companies worldwide. Visit holacracy.org for more information.