Bob MacDonald on Business

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Sometimes the Best Boss is No Boss at All

October 15th, 2012 · 3 Comments · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership

If you want to be successful in business, the last thing you should strive to be is a boss

Do you have any “bad boss” horror stories? If not, just wait; if you work long enough, you will. And when you have a bad boss you will know it from the angst and frustration you are forced to endure. And if that’s not bad enough, a recent Swiss study determined that those who work for a bad boss have a 40 percent greater chance of suffering a heart attack.

Bad bosses have their own individual traits any one of which they can employ to make your life miserable. They are, in a word, “bossy.” They micromanage all you do, and communicate as clearly as a monk under a vow of silence. They hoard credit in the fashion of an obsessive-possessive personality disorder and are all-American, professional blame-game players.

The University of Florida researched the phenomena of “abusive bosses” and even came up with a term to describe bad bosses; it’s called “power poisoning.” The Florida research determined that bad bosses are bent on satisfying their own need and wants, while devoting little or no attention to the needs and wants of followers. In fact, they act as if the rules do not apply to them. All of this is bad enough, but what is even worse (the heart attacks notwithstanding) is that most bad bosses don’t even know they are bad bosses; they confuse loathing with love, alienation with admiration.

Why “Bosses” Fail

Bosses who fail tend to be those who believe their job is to “be” the boss, as they mistakenly understand that role. They view their job as being a supervisor, the chief, the one in charge and superior to all others. That’s why the term often conjures up negative feelings from the rank and file: their bosses so often made them feel like underlings, peons, cogs in the machine, and worst of all, lowly subordinates. For me, the very concept of a “boss” is an anathema to effective leadership and the last thing a successful boss does is to boss people around.

From a personal perspective, there was always a feeling of failure if anyone ever responded to me by saying, “Well okay, you’re the boss.” As a “boss” your goal should always be to have those who work for you to want to do what you want them to do, because they are motivated to do so; not because you are the boss. From my observations and experience, companies would create a more productive environment, increase productivity, build loyalty and increase success if the very concept of “the boss” was eliminated. And there is evidence to validate this assumption.

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Who’s the Boss? There Isn’t One.” In it, the editors profiled the Valve Corporation, a company that makes a conscious effort to operate in a “boss-free” environment. Valve, founded in 1996, is a highly acclaimed and successful video-game maker. The Journal article pointed out that the company is structured with a flat hierarchy where pay is often determined by peers and the workday is directed by employees themselves. The Valve website says the company has no managers or assigned projects. Instead, its 300 employees recruit colleagues to work on projects they think are worthwhile. The idea of mobility and the option to work on different projects at Valve creates a sense of flexibility and mobility among the workforce; and is symbolized by having desks mounted on wheels, allowing them to move around to form new work areas.

The WSJ article suggested that Valve may be an outlier, but pointed out the company is not alone in the effort to outsource bosses. “Companies have been flattening out their management hierarchies in recent years, eliminating layers of middle management that can create bottlenecks and slow productivity,” the article reported. “The handful that have taken the idea a step further, dispensing with most bosses entirely, say that setup helps to motivate employees and makes them more flexible, even if it means some tasks, such as decision-making and hiring can take a while.”

Frank Shipper, a management professor at Salisbury University (Salisbury, Md.), has spent two decades studying “flat management” structures and concludes these types of structures help a company stay innovative, “because ideas can come from anyone in the organization, regardless of tenure or position.”

The WSJ article identified a few very large companies that have benefited from a “boss-free zone.” General Electric was cited as a company that has run some aviation-manufacturing facilities with no foremen or shop-floor bosses. One leader, the plant manager, sets production goals and helps resolve problems that may arise, but does not “boss” the daily activity of the workers. Teams, whose members volunteer to take on various duties, meet before and after each shift to review work, set goals and address problems.

Sign of the Future?

It may not be practical to adopt a “no bosses” approach at all companies, but it is possible to create “boss free zones” within any company. I have experience with one company that encouraged employees to take it on their own to find, develop and implement ways to simplify processes and procedures within the company’s operations.

These groups were called “Work Simplification Teams,” and they were made up of volunteers from all areas of the company. The groups would get together – with no management present – to identify areas of effort, elect leaders and plan the activity. (All of this was taken on with no expectation of extra pay and in addition to their normal job responsibilities.) Once the group had completed its work, the team would present their findings and recommendations to an all-company meeting where their ideas would be questioned and discussed and then presented to management. This approach kept the company on the cutting-edge of efficiency by allowing those who are expected to do the work to determine the best way to do it.

An ancillary benefit to this approach was that it allowed younger workers to learn how to lead – not from a position of authority – but by communicating, listening and convincing others to accept their ideas. It also helped them learn to understand and respect the ideas of others; all of which enabled them to become better bosses when they became a boss.

The conclusion to be drawn by all this is that a person being a boss does not make people better, but people who are given the respect, freedom, encouragement and opportunity can make a person a better boss.

And the Moral of the Story …

The best boss is the boss who does not act like a boss. The best boss makes an effort to get out of the way, instead of in the way of those charged with doing the job. The best boss does not tell others how to do their job, but sees their job as providing the information, support, tools and encouragement to others, so they can determine the best way to do their job. The best boss does not see themselves as a boss, but as a mentor, teacher, coach and cheerleader for others. If a person in authority adopts this philosophy, they are not a boss, but a leader. Clearly, individuals and companies would be more successful when there is more of a commitment to have fewer bosses and more leaders.

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