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The Bossless Office

We examine workplaces where worker bees are the leaders and how that really works.

There's a new movement for "flat" hierarchies in which employees are their own bosses. (Victor1558/Flickr)

There’s a new movement for “flat” hierarchies in which employees are their own bosses. (Victor1558/Flickr)

The old-style boss — the emperor, tyrant, dictator, king who sits alone in a corner office and sends down commands — is supposed to have been dead for a long time now.

The “flat” organization, the “horizontal” workplace, has been the talk for years. It’s creative, open, happy.

We know a lot has changed: A bunch of middle managers are gone. Technology wires more employees in to the heart of businesses and organizations.

But are we bossless yet? Closer? And how’s that really working?

This hour, On Point: The bossless workplace.

– Tom Ashbrook


Matthew Shaer, regular contributor to New York Magazine. His latest piece is “The Boss Stops Here.” (@matthewshaer)

Richard Sheridan, president of the software firm Menlo Innovations, which has a “bossless” staff of about 50 people. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Joy, Inc.” (@menloprez)

Mike Abrashoff, co-founder of the management consulting firm GLS Worldwide. He is a retired Navy captain who ran one of the best performing ships in the Pacific fleet by having a less hierarchical structure — his book on the experience is “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques From The Best Damn Ship In The Navy.”

Sherry Moss, professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University. She blogs on work and work flexibility for the Huffington Post.

Interview Highlights

Richard Sheridan on dealing with problems:

“The most important thing is to keep fear out of the mix because we didn’t solve the problem somehow magically of did we get everything done we said we would or didn’t we. That problem still exists for us just like it does for every company … I think in a lot of hierarchal organizations, a lot of fear-based bureaucracies, the bad news tends to go underground and gets hidden long enough so you don’t have a little problem anymore to deal with — you have a big one.”

Mattew Shaer on making pay transparent:

“It’s the final frontier — we’ve got a bossless environment, but are we going to go the full nine yards and get pay out in the open? … I think that you’re dealing with something very different from the traditional team setup when you do introduce compensation and you make that public in a certain way. I think people’s feelings are very tied to how they’re seen. We’re used to thinking of our worth at a company tied to who much we’re paid, tied to our compensation. And when it’s out there it can be a little bit frightening.”

Richard Sheridan on goal-oriented team work:

“There is I think no better motivation than focusing your team on a goal external to the team itself. What are we trying to accomplish in the world? Assembling around that external goal and then trusting that the team believes in each other, believes in the system that you’ve created and moves toward that goal. And now you have camaraderie — you don’t have people at each other’s throats trying to say, ‘Well, I’m going to get ahead of you.’”

Mike Abrashoff on how flat hierarchy works even in the military:

“The military invented the top-down command and control environment, but I don’t think it works anymore when you have a highly educated workforce. We’re more globalized. We know what’s going on in every other organization, and people are demanding more out of the work experience. I found that top-down doesn’t inspire commitment, it doesn’t create cohesion, and it doesn’t get the results anymore.”

Mike Abrashoff on “grassroots leadership”:

“When you have a more disciplined workforce, I believe you lessen the risk for complacency setting in which leads to accidents and bad things happening. I believe that the engagement of the workforce is the critical thing that keeps an organization safe and out of trouble. And the top-down approach these days doesn’t create that type of engagement where the employees feel like they’ve got a personal stake in the outcome.”

Sherry Moss on commitment and buying into the mission:

“On the longer term, if you take more time for everybody to get on board with the decisions that you’re making and the process that you’re going to go through. And you also have them all oriented toward a purpose, a meaning that they’re striving for — like let’s make this the best ship, let’s make this the best software that we can — and that vision is compelling that that initial slowness will translate into a strong level of commitment. Everybody will be buy into the decisions that are made because they participated. And that will result in them putting forth more effort toward the mission.”

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Magazine: The Boss Stops Here — “Consider, for instance, the fact that hiring at Menlo is handled by committee, with each applicant spending a little bit of time with a group of employees, until a consensus can be reached. That same collective decision-making happens during promotions, layoffs, and flat-out firings.”

The Wall Street Journal: Who’s The Boss? There Isn’t One — “Welcome to the bossless company, where the hierarchy is flat, pay is often determined by peers, and the workday is directed by employees themselves. So, how does anyone get things done?”

Cornerstone OnDemand: Office Hierarchies: Which One Is Best for Your Business? — “It’s a tale of two hugely successful companies known for opposite management styles: Apple grew into one of the world’s largest companies in part due to the top-down approach of its erstwhile founder Steve Jobs. Google, meanwhile, is famously democratic, allowing employees to cherry-pick what they do and for whom they work.”

Fast Company: The Agenda: Grassroots Leadership — “Abrashoff continues to see his mission as nothing less than the reorientation of a famously rigid 200-year-old hierarchy. His aim: to focus on purpose rather than on chain of command. When you shift your organizing principle from obedience to performance, says Abrashoff, the highest boss is no longer the guy with the most stripes — it’s the sailor who does the work.”


Parental advisory: Contains explicit content.

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  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Anarchy traditionally doesn’t work for humans: differences in experience, judgement, perspective and agenda yield to conflict and costly discussion, rework and delay. I’m curious how one can get this to work in large organizations or where consistency of vision and or continuity of knowledge is critical because one cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

    • JobExperience

      Work does not have to be a totalitarian predatory phalanx of hegemonic hierarchy. For a long time I was part of a cooperative construction company with 5 principles. We did residential and light commercial jobs. We had complimentary skillsets and areas of responsibility. We were content making 50 to 75K a year working 32 to 40 hours a week. We were in the Washington DC suburbs. Two things ruined our operation.
      1)Competitors undercut us using undocumented labor
      2)Crooked bankers and insurance companies
      Worker owned and managed enterprises can be a good thing. America needs them badly just now. Too bad I’m physically not able to try it again. It’s strange to hear Mark’s POV  because I had the impression that IT was amenable to flexible arrangements. Gar Alperowitz (University of Maryland) and Richard Wolff (Economic Update) are two well-known proponents of workplace democracy.

      • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

        A well run organization does not preclude democracy. Stakeholders, mindshare etcetera are critical to success. Regardless, without governance, the performance of larger and larger organizations degrades rapidly as chaos rules. Using team sports as an example, you can put a great team together on paper but it can fail miserably without a coach to unite them. You need management… And not everyone is capable of managing.

        The scalability of a flat organization is limited.

        The more complex the business model, the more management is required.

        • JobExperience

          I concede with Gunnarsson (above) that scale is key. I think size alone can be a societal problem.

          • Stewart Hase

            I predict that within 15 years we will have a different organisation that will be characterised by flatness. It will be based on projects-whatever the shape they come in and people will organise themselves around them. It is pretty clear that our current organisational structures do not work with a tribe of over about 20.

  • AC

    not another one of these. everyone has a ‘part’ in a project, someone needs to know how & what the left & right hand are doing, otherwise you might end up with ‘The Cube’…


    • AC

      O. this is how we work. When i went for an interview I had to also go to a lunch w/everyone I’d be working with…
      I love working in teams.

    • JobExperience

      Don’t laugh, I’m driving one. (When my illnesses permit)
      What you’re critiquing is the “Stone Soup Model”.
      It works at Mondragon and at many food co-ops. Yes, it’s consensus driven but it’s quality and more ethical. I tried it and I liked it plenty. “The Cube” is like the road less taken and that can be rewarding.

      • AC

        well, 1 person did live out of all of them…

    • J__o__h__n

      The Borg was a cube. 

  • Björn Gunnarsson

    In a small workplace everybody can easily communicate and manage themselves. As the number of people increases workers that manage communications within the company are required. Labeling them as ‘leaders’ is just wrong, they are performing a service to keep the workflow going in a more complicated environment just like other specialized roles are created on the demand of a larger workplace. In a leaderless workplace you still have people (one or many) that are responsible for the same tasks as we normally ‘attribute’ to leadership — we are just aware that nobody is more important than anyone else and in decisions that affect all, all are involved.

  • J__o__h__n

    I’d hate this.  I like to work independently.  With one boss I have clear goals and as long as I complete them I’m not subject to the opinions of the horde.  A good boss who is open to ideas and doesn’t micromanage is more effective.  This is how I manage and prefer to be managed. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/theneghan Thomas Heneghan

    So it’s like the United States version of Democracy. How’s that working out? 

  • J__o__h__n

    So there is a hierarchy for pay but there are no managers.  This is a sham. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mathias-Detamore/12926446 Mathias Detamore

    Anarchy is not chaos

  • Björn Gunnarsson

    A clarification about the ‘anarchy’ discussion. Anarchy is the same as anti-authoritarian and anti-authoritarian = no boss (flat organization)

    Many people confuse the ‘anarchy’ term with how it’s been used in movies, which is wrong.

  • geraldfnord

    Once it was thought impossible for a nation to work without a King and a State religion; once it was thought impossible for necessary work to get done without serfs or slaves.

    ‘Circumstances alter cases, ‘ as a working girl liked to opine.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    My last engagement with a fear based management paradigm was 1981… It didn’t end well, so when I go on a job interview, I’m interviewing the company for its team paradigm.

    I’ve still ended up in multi-tiered organizations that require lots of coordination, but not without excesses. So you’ve still got me wondering what’s necessary and what’s not.

  • ThirdWayForward

    On Point might consider doing a segment on Mondragon, the network of worker-owned and controlled industrial enterprises in the Basque Country in Spain.

    They have been going since the 1940′s, have tens of thousands of workers, and make all sorts of things from industrial robots to refrigerators to banking.

    Ultimately the only way that we are going to prevent capital flight to lower wage countries is for employees to own and control their own firms (then shipping the factory to China means that they no longer have their jobs). We can have cooperative workplaces within a competitive free market system of exchange.

    Our federal government should be actively encouraging, helping, and incentivising employee-owned enterprises.

  • J__o__h__n

    The hierarchy would return if the ship were at war. 

    • Tyranipocrit

       It is not a war ship. And a ship with a crew trained to participate in leadership responsibilities would reign supreme.  Guaranteed.  However, when a ship gets to big, it will fail.  Business should be small by nature.  BIg business is unsustainable and unjust.

      Why must you people always use war as a metaphor.  So sad.  so so sad.  You create your own reality.

      • J__o__h__n

        The title of his book says “the best damn ship in the Navy.”  I didn’t introduce the war metaphor.  

        • Tyranipocrit

          my bad.

  • Bluejay2fly

    I think in our current employment situation it is easier to implement team work approaches because you can be very selective of your employees. We have millions of unemployed workers many of whom have no work ethic whatsoever. I work in a prison getting the convicts to do anything is near impossible and as bad as they are getting some of the guards to do anything is even worse. Yes, highly skilled and intelligent people flourish better in team settings but that is only a small faction of the USA work force. Just like school which is a practice run for your work ethic many people are lazy and want learn dam near nothing. Miller time is more important than work time in this nation. How many people feel empathetic enough to believe playing on the internet or spending hours on the phone rather than working is stealing from your employer. Just like cheating the tax man, being a slug at work is a form of justice because we are somehow being wronged by the company. Also, I was in the war as a reservist and we had people who did absolutely nothing while others worked 70 hour work weeks. The military just showered accolades on those who worked while not doing nothing to those who didn’t because having to reprimand soldiers in your platoon reflects on your inability to lead. Our company looked like rock stars on paper but in reality you paid to 100 men of which only about 80 actually did anything and nobody had the courage to reform these lazy SOB’s because its easier to ignore them. That is why disability claims are sky high, prisons are full, and welfare roles are exploding, there is your great American work ethic which is bleeding us dry.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    The problem is bosses who come from the entitled financial/MBA elite or hereditary corporate aristocrat class and impose all their whims and theories and layers of bureaucracy on the people who actually know what they are doing. Bosses who are organic to a company, founders or someone who worked their way up, can be great. Unfortunately, with the “financialization” of the economy, the fraction of the former is growing. Working in a startup is a good escape.

  • Sy2502

    While too many middle managers definitely make things harder than easier, at the end of the day somebody has to step in and call the shots. Lack of leadership is as bad for a company as micromanagement.

    • Tyranipocrit

       not true. Consider cooperatives.  They are very successful and all the owner/employers/employees make tones more money than they would as slaves under the 1%.  Consider the Mondragon system in Spain. You dont know what you are talking about.  Your mind is so narrow and conditioned.  The world is ready for big big changes.   Everything we think we know is just wrong.  great things and great innovations only come about when we do different. when do what has never been done–in all aspects of life and leadership.

      • Sy2502

        I would bet a pretty penny I have a much greater work experience than you. I have worked in both kinds of places, with micromanagement and with absent leadership. They are both bad. Take some of your own advice “Everything we think we know is just wrong” and have the humility to shut up and listen to people who know more than you. And go take your meds while you are at it, each and every one of your posts is a lunatic raving. There are doctors out there that can help you.

        • John Cedar

          Managing dumb people is easier because they know they are dumb and should listen to you. It is managing your typical MENSA employee that proves difficult, because they are just smart enough to believe they are smart.

          • Sy2502

            Unfortunately being smart doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, nor is it guarantee of good decision making. Also I agree with you that some people have a bit too high an opinion of themselves to let themselves be managed effectively.

  • Regular_Listener

    Personally I would love to see more stuff like this – collaboration rather than dictating, everyone’s views encouraged and taken into account.  And maybe someday there will be more of it.  But from where I sit, it is hard to imagine.  Why?  Because people in power usually won’t want it.  They won’t want to make the effort to respect all their employees and take their ideas seriously.  It is easier and puffs up their egos to give orders.  But it could lead to good results and happier workers!

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