Could Eliminating Managers Improve Employee Engagement?

Team members gathered around a table working.

Instead of trying to fix managers to improve employee engagement, try implementing more self-management.Sometimes self-management is the answer.

"People don't leave jobs, they leave managers." If I've heard this once, I've heard it a thousand times. Managers shoulder a lot of the blame for employee disengagement. When you survey employees and ask questions about their manager, you will discover that disengaged employees complain about management.

So, we spent the last two decades trying to fix managers. And yet, we still have an employee engagement problem. What if fixing managers was the wrong solution? Think about it: If managers are the problem, maybe what we really need is fewer of them — maybe none. What if employee self-management is the answer to solving this "bad manager" problem in employee engagement?

No Managers? No Problem

The role of the manager is so entrenched in how we think about work that you are probably having trouble even accepting that work could get done without managers. This was an idea that was challenging for me to understand initially, too. But there are an increasing number of organizations who are proving that not only can it work, but teams and organizations can thrive in the absence of traditional management or supervisory roles.

One place you can find examples of organizations operating without managers is the field of technology. Tech startups have developed a reputation for innovation in both their products and their workplace. Cristian Rennella, cofounder of oMT, described in Quartz how his business has achieved 204 percent revenue growth while using nontraditional methods for how work gets done — including having no bosses. "We couldn't understand why people without technical knowledge had to tell programmers 'what' to do and, furthermore, they had to supervise 'how' programmers did it," he writes.

Another example is Seattle-based video game developer and publisher, Valve Corporation. This 400-employee organization is valued at an estimated $4 billion dollars, and they've achieved that success in the absence of traditional management. Valve's former economist-in-residence, Yanis Varoufakis, is quoted in as saying, "The most astonishing aspect of life at Valve is that there are no bosses. It contains no explicit hierarchy." Hiring, firing and compensation decisions are all made by leaderless employee peer groups at Valve. The system relies upon employee cooperation and a set of social norms that everyone abides by and protects.

You're probably thinking, "Sure, tech organizations can pull this off, but it would never work in my industry." Not so fast...

Success Stories

In AMA Quarterly, I shared the case study of how a Vistaprint customer contact center in Montego Bay, Jamaica, conducted an experiment in self-managed teams using the principles of Agile. The experiment included three teams of 15 customer service agents. Each team was asked to operate for eight weeks in a self-organized, self-managed way — without a supervisor. Each of the three groups was also asked to use a slightly different approach to self-management.

The results were remarkable. There was no decline in performance across the three groups. And, the group that was given some guidance and training for how to self-manage using some basic Agile methods saw an increase in both performance and employee engagement.

If that's not compelling enough, there's the often-cited story of The Morning Star Company, a tomato processing business in California that's among the largest tomato processors in the world. In December 2011, Gary Hamel wrote a provocative case study about the organization for Harvard Business Review titled, "First, Let's Fire All the Managers." Hamel describes how this 40-year-old manufacturing organization experienced 20 years of double-digit growth (in an industry where the average is 1 percent) using a model of self-management.

"Morning Star's goal, according to its organizational vision, is to create a company in which all team members 'will be self-managing professionals, initiating communications and the coordination of their activities with fellow colleagues, customers, suppliers, and fellow industry participants, absent directives from others.'"

Instead of supervisors and managers, Hamel describes how they use processes like, "employee personal mission statements" and, "colleague letters" of agreement to create stability and structure. Purchasing and staffing decisions are also initiated by employees at all levels using a simple process. There are literally no "managers" who must sign off or provide approvals.

Replacing the Managers

Business and work can thrive without managers. We've just reviewed examples from small software shops to large manufacturing operations. Before you decide to eliminate all the managers, there's something important to understand — this isn't just about eliminating managers. If you look at each of these examples, you'll find that in place of the role of manager is a system of self-management. For work to happen efficiently, we need some structure and systems. If you remove all structure, you get chaos. These organizations are replacing one system of management with another, one type of structure with something different. If you want to learn more about self-management, one of my go-to resources is Chuck Blakeman. He is one of the experts on self-management and provides simple steps to help guide your journey.

Next time your employee engagement results suggest your managers are the problem, ask a new question: "Instead of fixing our managers, what if we replaced them with self-managed teams?"

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