HR Trends

What to Consider Before You Fire All Your Managers

Max van Veen

Business Developer at intuo

More and more organisations are giving their employees increasing autonomy in their daily work. Simultaneously, I see a trend in which the manager’s added-value is questioned. You’ve probably also read these news articles, in which the CEO proudly describes how they rigorously threw out all their (middle) management to become flatter, giving the power back to the people. The good PR for sure isn’t harming.

To compensate for the absence of a manager, I see that many of these organisations introduce self-steering teams, who are not lead by a manager but set their own course. So, let’s say your organisation is thinking about getting rid of their managers, or maybe it already did. What are the things to take into account?

No More Managers, Hurrah!

It’s easy to see the advantages of moving decision-making power away from the manager and towards the team itself. Firstly, there’s more responsibilities and autonomy for the individuals within that team. And as we know from countless studies, giving people more responsibility and autonomy generally makes them feel more engaged, resulting in a higher productivity or customer loyalty.

Secondly, the team can anticipate on fast-changing customer demands in a much quicker way, as it doesn’t have to ask permission higher up the hierarchical chain from managers who often have less direct contact with the customer. For an example of a success story, look into the Spotify-model, which influenced other, more traditional companies like ING Bank to copy some elements of their team structures which they call squads, chapters and guilds. For Spotify, it helped them to significantly reduce the time-to-market of new products.

Clearly, this is interesting if you operate in an environment in which the need for hierarchy is relatively low. I wouldn’t recommend self-steering teams in high-risk situations in which quick decision-making from a specialist is required, like in an army squad or the emergency room of a hospital. You don’t want your patient to unnecessarily lose a leg due to an incorrect procedure by the junior assistant because the team decided to give him some autonomy in this ‘project’...

But how do you determine the need for hierarchy, and how far should you go with self-steering in your organisation? Will you also let the teams decide on more complex issues, such as overall strategy and rewarding?

Why Managers Still Have A Future

It now brings me to the unavoidable drawbacks of self-steering teams. In my opinion, following an overall strategy will be very hard to achieve if all teams are self-steering and driven by customer demands. Alignment gets lost, as teams are moving in different directions. Unless that goal is only to serve the customer in the best possible way, like Zappos, self-steering teams and strategy don’t really go hand-in-hand. Even Zappos had to double the amount of ‘lead links’, people who assign roles to team members, from 150 to 300 after their transition to the Holacracy-model to maintain some kind of alignment. So, the more alignment you need, the higher the need for hierarchy (think about the emergency room again).

Furthermore, knowledge sharing is not scalable in self-steering teams. Without an overarching authority to facilitate knowledge sharing between the independently operating teams, it is likely that nobody will take the responsibility to organise this. Also, if leadership becomes a shared task, everyone needs to fully understand and practice it. Managers exist because they have the authority to assign the jobs nobody wants to do. It requires a very mature culture to be able to divide those tasks in a self-steering team. Good luck if you’re the introvert in a team of loud-mouthed extraverts. Somehow, you always end up putting together the holiday planning schedule...

How To Improve Your Culture

Some companies ask their employees if they prefer to work with or without managers. That’s like asking Cookie Monster if he wants cookies or a quinoa salad. My opinion is that people don’t leave their company, they leave their managers. Why? Because there are many BAD managers out there who only have an eye on organisational interests and climbing up the corporate ladder. They’re the ones who have ‘no time’ for personal coaching or any of that nonsense, "so just get back to work". And they’re working in a company culture where this behaviour is accepted. 

I really believe that if you’re looking for a way to increase employee engagement or serve customers in a more agile way, you don’t have to introduce self-steering teams to achieve that goal. Focus on turning your bad managers into good coaches first, for example by focussing on these 3 tips:

  • Create a learning culture, in which coaching is an important part of a manager’s task. Reward good coaching behaviour.
  • Support managers in their coaching by providing data about the relevant issues which they can use in their 1-on-1s, like engagement scores, question templates, and feedback data.
  • Give employees the necessary instruments to take initiative around personal development, feedback, and goals. It’s going to make people feel like they’re being listened to. Attention is everything, but often forgotten.

Do you want to know more about how other organisations did this? Check out intuo’s Performance Management module for coaching or get in touch!