Boss Free

Are you angry at your boss? Is incompetent leadership ruining your company? Does your boss squash creative initiative and enforce conformity?

I have always loved my bosses, but bad bosses must be pretty common because Bob Sutton’s new book Good Boss, Bad Boss is selling really well (hot off the successes of his hit The No Asshole Rule). But here’s a radical idea: Dispense with bosses altogether. Think it could never work?

Guess what, there are lots of companies who have chosen to go “boss free.” Valve Corp, a videogame maker in Washington State, has been boss free since 1996. It also has no managers and no official project assignments. How do the 300 employees coordinate their work? They “self manage”: they recruit each other for worthwhile projects, and they roll their desks around (all are on wheels) to reconfigure their work teams as they wish. Salaries and raises are set by committees of your peers. At Valve, with each project one person tends to emerge as the de facto leader, but they’re not assigned from on high.

In my book advocating for the collaborative organization, Group Genius, I wrote about W. L. Gore, another company with a famously flat organizational structure with around 10,000 employees. Management guru Gary Hamel likewise is an advocate, see his book The Future of Management.

These companies are radically different from what you’re used to. It takes almost a year for a new hire to adapt; some of them never do, and they move on to a more traditional company. Getting the culture right is absolutely crucial. Gore CEO Terry Kelly told me that she spends over 50% of her time managing the culture. And having the right staff is essential; you need highly motivated and collaborative employees. At most such companies, the interview process is grueling, because you’re hired by a huge team of ten or more people (because there’s no boss to make the final decision).

If you’re nervous about going completely boss free overnight, it’s possible to take small steps in this direction. For example, at Gore, they tell employees that ten percent of every week is their own “creativity” time, to manage as they wish. Any company could experiment with something similar: Ninety percent of each week you’ll work on your managed project, and the other ten percent, work boss free. But then: What if everyone prefers working boss free?

*See Silverman, Rachel Emma, 2012. “Who’s the boss? There isn’t one.” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2012, pp. B1, B8.