should you get rid of all the managers?

On days when being a manager or dealing with a manager is making you tear your hair out, you might wonder how things have been going at Zappos in the two years since the company famously announced its transition to “holacracy,” a system without managers or titles.

But if you’re tempted to wonder if a flatter, manager-less structure might work in your company, proceed with skepticism.

The New York Times, which talked to Zappos employees last summer to see how the transition was going, reported: “Pressed for instances of Holacracy’s achievements at Zappos, employees could offer only pedestrian examples,” such as shutting down a bridge to a parking garage so everyone had to use the same main entrance but later reopening it, and requesting that employees not leave trash on the shuttle bus. “So far, however, no one could point to any innovations that have improved customer service or increased sales. Critical issues like how to hire, fire and pay people in a company with no job titles have emerged as sticking points.” In addition, “It’s taking time away from getting the actual work done,” reported one employee. “I have five hours of meetings today.”

Interestingly, one oft-noted critique of manager-less structures is that authority structures emerge anyway. Brilliant management thinker Bob Sutton points out that when organizations say they’re getting rid of management roles, authority structures tend to stick around anyway, but without a formal hierarchy, people can become “less productive and effective, dysfunctional competition for status emerges, and coordination and cooperation suffer … As you scale an organization, getting rid of the hierarchy – or even assuming that a flatter one is better – is the wrong goal. Your job is to build the best hierarchy you can.”

Moreover, what happens in hard times? Some types of decisions need to have a clear decision-maker at the top: budget cuts, layoffs, and what will happen in their aftermath.

Downtown Project, a $ Las Vegas urban-renewal project, dropped most aspects of holacracy after finding it was distraction, especially during layoffs. Transportation startup Shift dropped the system after less than a year, finding that it led to too many meetings and unclear decision-making authority. And last month, the New York Times reported that Zappos is “hemorrhaging” employees, with 18% of the company having less since the previous March.

If you’re feeling like management in a given organization is getting in the way of better, more creative work and better results, that’s a flag to examine why. It might be something about the way management is structured, or how it operates, or it might be a few bad apples. But it’s probably not an indictment of management in general. When managers are working the way they’re supposed to, they’re the ingredient that builds strong teams, makes sure people have clear roles that they can take true ownership of, checks that goals and work plans collectively add up to the big results the organization wants, ensures that people get useful feedback that will help them deliver better and better work, thinks about to retain strong people, and addresses and resolves problems forthrightly.

When managers aren’t doing that, the problem is that they’re not doing that – not that they exist in the first place. So don’t throw all managers out just yet.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. AMG*

    Well, I am just shocked that it didn’t work. Who would have thought that there would be an issue with decision making if there were no decision makers?

  2. KathyGeiss*

    The whole experiment reminds me of trying to do group work in university. Without anyone in charge to hold people accountable, everything is harder.

    But, some props to zappos for being willing to take risks and try new things. The real test will be how they measure its effectiveness and take action if it’s not working.

    1. Random Lurker*

      Zappos seems like a fascinating company and I love reading about their innovations. I think they also have the “buy out” option if you want to walk away after a few months.

      That being said, I cannot imagine a place I’d like to work less. As I age, the more I value structure and hierarchy. Even though there are times that bureaucracy wants to make me scream, and I am not thrilled with my own boss, I do feel much more productive than I would if I was trying to influence without authority.

    2. neverjaunty*

      According to the linked article, it’s not effective and it’s not working – they’re losing many employees, people are stuck in hours and hours of meetings, and while small things are getting handled (like trash cleanup) big things are stalled (like hiring and firing).

      I admit the ‘holacracy’ thing makes me wonder if any of these people ever spent five minutes trying to get a group of people to decide on what restaurant they want to go to for dinner or what movie to watch.

      1. KathyGeiss*

        I agree that it’s not working. I’m curious to see if they see it that way and if they put plans in place to measure that and when they’ll pull the pin on it.

      2. AMG*

        It makes me wonder why I am working in a cube and these people are running a company. Bitter, party of one, your table is ready…

    3. NJ Anon*

      “The whole experiment reminds me of trying to do group work in university. Without anyone in charge to hold people accountable, everything is harder.”

      And when I complained I was told this is how it is in real life. Um, no, people are held accountable in real life.

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        Yes they are. I give props to one of my professors because I told him in real life I would escalate the problem of a non-performing partner to my boss. I got an A on the assignment and a very nasty email from my partner after the professor gave him a zero, which meant he couldn’t pass the class.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, hierarchy is one of my favorite things about real life! You can tell right away whose opinion should hold more weight, who to talk to when someone is not pulling their weight, etc.

    4. Koko*

      It makes me wonder what problem they were specifically trying to solve with this solution.

      I work on a team that has a clear formal management structure that comes into play most for meta-work – things like performance reviews, PTO approval, expense approval, and HIPPO votes on a decision.

      In terms of our actual work, we are very non-hierarchical. Everyone is a specialist in a narrow area and we all need each other’s cooperation to get our jobs done because all our tasks span many specialty areas.

      It works because we have a culture that says being responsive and helpful to your coworkers and being able to work collaboratively to accomplish goals are important. Teamwork is one of the skills we’re evaluated on when we get performance reviews, but also, there’s are cultural norms that anyone of any rank can initiate a project and recruit others to help them, that nobody initiates a project that requires huge investments from other employees without consulting with them first, and it’s almost unheard of for someone to refuse a request or drag their feet on it.

      We didn’t have to eliminate management to accomplish any of this. It’s mostly just based on a sense of reciprocity – when I get a request from Felicia to help her with something, I do my best to deliver what she needs as quickly as is reasonable, often even if it’s the difference between having to work overtime to meet my own goals or not. Because I know it won’t be long before I need something from Felicia and I want her to deliver what I need as quickly as is reasonable. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t help your coworkers here.

      1. lowercase holly*

        same. it’s nice that the customer service reps have the freedom to make decisions based on specific issues, but it seemed like they had those freedoms before based on my interactions with them.

      2. neverjaunty*

        My guess is that they were trying to solve the problem of hierarchies being like, oppressive, and employees not having any control over the workplace because The Man keeps them down, and the best way to get rid of the bad boss problem is for nobody to be the boss at all.

        1. LQ*

          Actually this made me think of the pastor from the update yesterday who didn’t really want to do the hard parts of the job. Maybe it comes from lazy supervisors.

        2. fposte*

          You’re framing it as a little more crunchy granola than I think it actually was–we’re not talking Occupy Zappo’s here :-). But I think at heart that’s what we’re talking about–an experiment to see if a workplace could be more productive without entrenched hierarchies. I think it was a noble experiment, but I also am not surprised that it seems to be failing.

          Tony Hsieh said from the start he wasn’t interested in a shoe company–he was interested in a service company, and the product was incidental. I think he sees the company as an opportunity to explore new models in general. As long as he’s willing to accept when some models don’t work, I think that’s not a bad thing. Not many people can afford to test those things out in real life, and some of those approaches, like the original Zappo’s model, seem to work out quite well.

        3. LBK*

          To me, it reads more like overcompensation for bad hires. The idea being that if no one is an official manager, you don’t get screwed if you accidentally hire or promote someone who turns out to be a bad manager. The downside of this, of course, is that you also don’t have any good managers, which can do a hell of a lot for a team that will otherwise be a structureless, directionless blob without anyone officially leading it.

  3. Bwmn*

    I love this.

    This also actually makes me think about larger discussions on companies cutting training opportunities. While this is often discussed around the impact on entry level employees, the impact on management is absolutely huge. Giving a team clear roles, work plans, goals, feedback, etc. is not necessarily intuitive just because someone has been working for X years in a more junior role.

    1. LQ*

      I want to print this out and give it to leadership here. They let us doing training for entry level staff but they keep telling us that the supervisors and other levels of Non-Entry level staff won’t accept training. They are the people who need it most and where the impact would be the biggest!

      1. Doriana Gray*

        My company offers supervisor and management training and yet, my former manager wasn’t made to attend when she’s one of main ones who would benefit from it. It blew mind.

        1. LQ*

          Supervisor and manager training is going to have the most benefit to everyone. Things flow downward. Weirdly as we get people who have been in entry level positions getting promoted (very very slowly because government) they are far more likely to come to us for tools and resources to help themselves so they can help their teams. So basically we just have to wait for everyone to retire…It’s going to be a long wait.

        2. Ann Cognito*

          My last job was the same. It was so frustrating as new managers loved getting Manager training, but it was actually some of the longer-term managers who needed it most, but who refused to attend since they’d been managing for years and “I know all that stuff already.” The few longer-term managers who attended, all learned a lot from it, and were glad they had come, but they were the managers who were willing to admit they don’t know everything about managing to begin with.

          1. Doriana Gray*

            but it was actually some of the longer-term managers who needed it most, but who refused to attend since they’d been managing for years and “I know all that stuff already.”

            This was my former manager’s mindset. She had the highest turnover rate of any manager in the division, yet she knew everything about managing people.


            I kind of wish my company made all managers/supervisors attend these training sessions at least once every three or four years. Refresher courses can be extremely helpful for some people. There are just some things you won’t pick up the first time around.

  4. Artemesia*

    I know a couple of companies letting holocracy eat them alive. They operate with duplicative effort, lack of coordinated marketing, competing information and data management systems and people unable to make an intelligent decision. Worst idea ever. When businesses fail it is ALWAYS management. Not having management is fail from day one.

    1. esra*

      Cannot agree with you more. I’ve worked at two places that tried to flatten hierarchy, and both ended in epic passive-aggression, irritation from higher ups (you mean if you get rid of managers the staff won’t magically just do what the president is thinking??), and eventually layoffs.

      Boo, flat orgs, boo.

  5. Dawn*

    I think it’s been interesting to see how Zappos has flailed about after introducing flat management, while Valve has been doing flat management for years and it’s been going spectacularly well.

    For me, in reading about the two companies, the difference is that at Valve pretty much everyone there is all working towards the same goal (make games/get games to customers via Steam). Whereas at Zappos there’s a ton of employees doing a ton of different things and I doubt that the warehouse guy making $10 an hour feels a huge sense of ownership in the company as a whole.

    Plus with flat management at Zappos, since they’re so large, I think it’s ridiculous that they expected to clap their hands and say “Poof! Flat management!” and have it all work out. At Valve, flat management seemed to have evolved naturally and collaboratively and Gabe Newell finally decided to make it official because he didn’t want to be the be all end all decision maker for the entire company.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Yeah, I wonder how well that’s going to work out for Valve in the long run. While the company is working towards the same goal, it’s not like everybody is a lead programmer, either – and Newell is pretty autocratic.

      1. LBK*

        You need look no further than their customer service, where – not exaggerating – you can often get a faster reply by emailing Gabe directly than by going through their customer service team.

        I also think you underestimate how many other things Valve has to do besides make video games. Every company has to have payroll, HR, maintenance, etc. to keep the company operating. The developers aren’t submitting their own paychecks to ADP every 2 weeks.

  6. Seal*

    The place I work has a flat organizational structure and its a joke. Since there’s no real incentive to work together and no one is ever held accountable for their actions, nothing ever gets done. The only person who thinks it works is the CEO and that’s because he’s never there. Completely ridiculous way to run a business.

  7. Cat like that*

    My sister works at Zappos, so I have heard about the transition to holocracy secondhand. She actually loves the system and says it’s inspired her to try new things because she doesn’t have to get permission from management to pitch in on a project in another department, she just does it. It’s been a good learning experience for her. That being said, I know my sister’s personality well and she’s never been a fan of following rules (always in trouble in school for being disruptive and not following the class directions). She thrives in this kind of environment. I visited the Zappos campus last year and I could never ever ever deal with that sort of workplace. It would drive me bonkers. But maybe if they hire enough people with the right personalities it could work out.

    1. BRR*

      This also highlights to me that there could be a difference between employee happiness or productivity and company results. I know a few people who would enjoy a holaracy and they are all the type who do not like rules or authority. They’re also the people who I think need some authority in order to learn.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Yes. And I’m guessing that Sis is not the one making decisions about anything other than her own projects – like deciding who gets raises and how much, handling harassment, dealing with That Guy who always dumps work on other people, etc.

        1. Cat like that*

          She said that raises are decided by the whole department voting to decide who deserves one. And while you might think everyone would vote for themselves, apparently they don’t. When I visited the campus last year her department had unanimously decided to give a raise to a teammate who had solved a lot of problems and taught her methods to the rest of the team.

          As for dealing with harassment/That Guy, my sister is the opposite of diplomatic, so I’m sure she’s dealt with those things in her own way.

          1. Koko*

            Wow. I would be less concerned about people voting for themselves, and more concerned about one person being consistently shut out of raises because people don’t like him or her even if they’re doing great work.

            1. neverjaunty*

              Right? This is management by popularity contest.

              And as for dealing with harassment/That Guy, that’s great for Sis, but maybe not so great when everybody likes Wakeen and tells Jane she’s clearly misinterpreting him.

    2. lowercase holly*

      does it also mean the buyers can stock whatever they want without a clear idea of the sorts of things zappos wants to sell?

      1. Cat like that*

        My sister is actually a buyer. She gets a lot of creative freedom to choose the shoes for her department, they just have to be the right brands (she works with the skate shoe brands like Vans and Converse). I think the CEO ultimately signs off on the choices before they place the order.

        1. Anna*

          What type of education and experience does one need to become a buyer? I always thought that sounded like an interesting job.

          1. Sammie*

            I was a buyer about a million years ago. At that time–not much experience was necessary–just a willingness to do a lot of trend analysis. I remember it being about 20% looking at product (the fun part) and 80% number crunching and distribution.

          2. Cat like that*

            My sister has a degree in theater and 3 years experience on a retail sales floor. But I doubt this translates to “buyer” for any company that isn’t as relaxed as Zappos.

            1. Anna*

              I can see how the retail sales experience would help you to know what sells and what doesn’t.

    3. Koko*

      “She doesn’t have to get permission from management to pitch in on a project in another department, she just does it.”

      I mentioned this up-thread, but you don’t have to eliminate managers to do this. You just give your employees carte-blanche privilege to use their own best judgment to manage their time and workload. That’s how it works here – I never check in with my manager to ask if I can work on a project. The project manager asks me to participate and I tell her if I can based on my own workload. If I am swamped, I tell the project manager that I can do X but need more time, or I can’t do X but I can do half-X now and half-X in the future, or I can’t do X but I can do Y which might suit your needs just as well for now. My manager just trusts that I won’t overcommit myself or neglect my own work.

      1. sunny-dee*

        My old department, I actually fantasized about holacracy, but it is because the managers are so jaw-droppingly awful that no management would be a blessed improvement. (And considering we’re down 25% in overall head count and over 70% on some projects, the management isn’t do the very bare basics of hiring or firing. Or retention. It cannot get worse.)

    4. AcademiaNut*

      I know a few people who fit in that category – highly competent, but anti-authoritarian, and don’t function well in a hierarchy. I’ve seen them do well when they are their own boss, in contracting type positions. I’ve also seen them function well in more traditional jobs when they are free to do what they want, without asking permission or answering to anyone, *and* where what they wanted to do aligned well with what the business needed. If the business needed something they didn’t feel like giving, well, too bad.

      Interestingly, these people were also very bad at managing others. They didn’t like having to give instructions to other people, or explain things, or monitor them, but at the same time, they had very little patience when their underlings didn’t intuit how the they expected them to perform. And they had very, very little patience with real (or perceived) incompetence, and difficulty understanding different points of view.

    5. LBK*

      See, this kind of thing would drive me crazy. To me, it operates under the assumption that if a manager says no to something, they’re wrong and that only a bad manager would refuse to let someone go work on another project. But the manager is the one overseeing everyone’s workload and realizing that if Jane runs off to go help another team for a month, she’s screwing everyone else on her team who will have to pick up her slack when their new initiative kicks in in two weeks. And sure, maybe Jane is smart enough to be entrusted to balance her workload and know the needs of her own team before she decides to go work on something else, but just from my brief 6 years of being in the working world, I think that is a hilariously optimistic assumption.

  8. Jimbo*

    I wonder what it looks like for a company like Zappos to switch back to a more traditional hierarchy. I could foresee a lot of hurt feelings when they start assigning titles and saying who is now in charge. If they suffered from high turnover by adapting a holacracy, they could go through it again when they switch back, making this a very costly experiment.

  9. BRR*

    I applaud them for trying but it seems the pendulum swung too far in the other direction away from too much bureaucracy. As mentioned, I think when transforming a hierarchy into a holacracy people aren’t going to be able to shed the former power structure. Also I think there need to be some decision makers, it streamlines the process.

  10. INTP*

    Besides the issues mentioned above, I feel like “holacracy” is a trick played by a certain type of aggressively laid back (oxymoron intended) company, just like “unlimited vacation time.”

    As the article mentions, group dynamics are group dynamics and expectations and structures and variations in authority develop anyways. This type of management just forces people to figure out the rules by trial and error or mind reading, because acknowledging that there are rules would be so uncool, brah – but there aren’t actually fewer rules to follow.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Yes, this. Anyone who’s ever been involved with a college co-op or a ‘consensus based’ group knows exactly how this goes down.

      1. Koko*

        “We make all decisions by consensus here, so we haven’t made a decision since 2007.”

      2. fposte*

        Oh, God, that was three years of alternative high school for me. Throw in the oar of speaking and the flashback will be complete.

      3. Tara R.*

        I’m actually in a consensus based group that works really well– yeah, there are people who “drive” the process, leading the discussion and actually acting on the group’s opinions– but things get done and people almost always agree. I think it helps when you’re a relatively small (< 20) group of people with similar ideas. We usually go around and give our thoughts, and we talk about it until everyone's happy with what we've decided. Lots of times people bring up concerns not to naysay, but to keep in mind as we go forward. I love it, personally, but I can see how it could go wrong very easily.

        1. Koko*

          Small is definitely key. My immediate work group (myself and 3 others) uses a consensus model only because we’ve never had any trouble reaching consensus that has prompted us to need an alternative model. I think it’s part because there are only 4 of us, part because there’s pretty overlapping agreement about how to implement best practices in our work, and part because we tend to informally follow the model of, “The person who feels the most strongly about this gets the deciding vote.” Folks don’t seem to have a problem making their case and then backing down if someone feels really strongly that it’s not the right choice, and I can’t really recall any situations over the past few years where there have been two people who disagreed and both felt very strongly about it.

          OTOH a group of 120 people can spend 45 minutes debating where to order lunch from.

  11. Augusta Sugarbean*

    you probably shouldn’t throw out all the managers

    How about just mine? Three of the last four were the most useless people to walk the face of the earth. I knew things were going to go back to being awful when the one effective manager got promoted. And the new one is even worse than any of us imagined. We might as well have a holocracy – maybe they switched and didn’t tell anyone. I cannot wait to get through school and start job hunting.

  12. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Ah, yeah. Seen this happen.

    The REAL reason it’s often done – so you can replace anyone on the team with anyone else.

    For instance, someone working in a computer room, keeping the printers loaded, monitoring a daily job stream and making $35,000 a year can be replaced, politically, with a manager making $100,000.

    In fact, one place I worked had laid off so many line workers (programmers) that we had one guy who had two managers whose jobs consisted of monitoring and managing ONE guy. When the next layoff came, the one guy was let go, but his bosses remained. They weren’t programmers or managers, they were “team members”.

    Translation = they were kept on to continue collecting their salaries.

    Bottom line is, this is sometimes done to protect managers and expose the underlings. And, no, it doesn’t work.

  13. Bryce*

    The “holacracy” experiment at Zappos is certainly a noble one, and is a step in the right direction in theory when it comes to dealing with the problem of bureaucracy impeding organizational efficiency. In practice, there turn out to be several problems with holacracy:

    First, there needs to be someone to handle things like time off requests, performance reviews, salary, hiring and firing, and hard conversations about things from work quality/quantity to personal hygiene.

    Second, there needs to be someone with some kind of authority to lay out and enforce the rules of the organization, and dole out sanctions for non-compliance with those rules, up to and including firing people.

    Finally, there needs to be a place where the buck ultimately stops and someone who knows “who’s on first.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      There are times when clear and formal leadership is not optional. For example, in times of crisis. A decision is needed within the next half hour and we will have to live with the fallout from that decision for the next six months. It better be a damn good decision.

      Another instance is at start up. I was involved with a group where a few people decided would be best as a leaderless group. It took me a few years to work through what I experienced there. This should have been a good group, it should have been a large group that effectively contributed to our community. Instead I spent more than a few nights crying and it had major negative impact on my thinking. The death of the group took about a year and a half and those of us left behind licked our wounds for another year or so. (We hung in there because the idea was a fantastic idea.) Nutshell: No, your group cannot be leaderless or flat at the start. Worse yet: People do get hurt. We don’t like to think that “empowering the individual” hurts people but it can.

    2. AcademiaNut*

      I was thinking more of Communism – sounds great on paper, has serious problems in reality.

      That, and a bout of educational reform my younger brother went through, based on the Whole Language approach to learning. Anecdotal reports (no grades or marks), kids work at their own pace, exercises to increase creativity, dropping things like rote memorization and phonics in favour of a holistic approach to reading and math. There were some useful ideas in in it, but it was a disaster overall. 8 year olds are not generally strong self motivated learners. Parents were confused by the reports, and didn’t know if their kid was learning what they needed to. Abilities at things like spelling and basic math (which do require some level of rote learning to master) dropped. Oh, and they implemented it without any significant teacher training, beyond a few pro-D day seminars.

  14. Cassandra*

    Just the other week I taught Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny of Structurelessness” which (though a product of its time and context) is well worth a read.

    Regarding group projects in higher-ed contexts: I put lightweight project management (pick a PM, do a quick project charter and schedule, all communication to me goes through the PM, the PM has authority and can call on me for backup) and an end-of-semester 360 evaluation into every group project I assign. Complaints and email fell to near-zero, project quality went mostly up; best teaching trick I have. :)

  15. fred*

    If you have good managers who actually know how to manage people (very few do), you won’t need to try fancy tricks like this.

  16. babblemouth*

    If you’d asked me at Ex-Job, where managers never took decisions when we needed them, but stepped in on perfectly well-run projects to mess them up, I would have gone all “yeah, we can do without those”.

    Now that I have a wonderful manager that knows when to step in and out, the last thing I want is to lose him. So I’d say “throw out SOME managers”. Or you know, make sure your processes and managers are useful.

  17. Long Time Reader First Time poster*

    I worked for an agency that was essentially manager-less — there were a few Big Bosses that didn’t touch any of the daily work, and then there were about a hundred other employees.

    It was TERRIBLE. Nobody ever made an executive decision about anything, there was nobody to go to when you needed to escalate a situation. I will NEVER work anywhere without a clearly defined hierarchy again.

Comments are closed.