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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