Online and Content Marketing specialist , HR Author & LinkedIn publisher Effectory International
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A personal perspective on life without managers

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20th Mar 2015
Online and Content Marketing specialist , HR Author & LinkedIn publisher Effectory International
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Is the concept of working without managers just another passing trend? Or can it really work?

I would argue the latter. By profession I’m a Marketer. My primary responsibility is to expand our business through content marketing, and to help shape and build our brand across Europe. Originally I was born in the UK and after finishing an MA at Edinburgh University, I embarked on a Latin American journey that eventually ended up with me relocating to the Netherlands.

After working in the Dutch NGO sector, I began working for Effectory International. Our core business is employee surveys, with a specific focus on working closely with multinationals to drive employee engagement. Perhaps the most unique aspects of the organisation is that all of the 160 plus employees work without managers. The structure is entirely flat.

Conceptually, the idea of flat organisations has only just started to come into mainstream thinking and the term may not mean all that much to you. It certainly didn’t mean much to me when I started. Once it was clear that it wasn’t a gimmick I remember thinking: what kind of a company am I going to work for?

What’s it like working without managers?

In short, liberating but demanding.

I’m very grateful that I work in an organisation where the time period from thought process to action is incredibly short. Since I started my current job, I don’t think I can remember a day where I’ve been frustrated by the lack of action or progress.

The freedom that I’m given to follow and develop my ideas is also incredibly motivating. I get an enormous amount of energy from my work, and it’s always a joy to see the end results and impact from something you’ve created. Being given the opportunity to add your input for new projects, and knowing you won’t have to jump through various management layers creates both huge enthusiasm and commitment.

I have to be honest and say don’t I miss being managed. In fact, I’ve yet to meet anyone that loves being managed. It has always struck me as contradictory that we expect adults to manage their private affairs, and yet when it comes to working life, there are some that believe everyone needs managing. From experience, working in an environment where everyone trusts each other to do their job makes work enjoyable.

It is however, by all means not perfect. The lack of a manager also means there’s no one to keep an eye on you or tell you that you’re working too much. I’ve had to figure out my boundaries for myself, and I will admit to pushing the boundaries to the limit on more than one occasion.

Alongside this, there’s also an issue around the extra responsibility you gain for your work. There is no final OK from a manager; the responsibility lies with the individual. It can add a lot of pressure that you’re not used to, and bearing responsibility for all of your work can be daunting.

Culture shock

When I first began working without managers, there were three major differences that I had to get used to. The first was the openness of the work culture, both in how people communicate and in how information is shared. Pretty much all information – including financial information – is made available and shared internally, the kind of information that in my previous jobs was given only to senior managers.

The second was the short lines of communication within the organisation. In my first week I sat down and had a meeting with one of the owners and directors of the company. After our meeting overran, he kindly insisted on buying me lunch and we discussed our mutual appreciation for the skill of butchery. I remember thinking at the time how surreal it was and this was definitely a first. To this day, he’s still only an email or phone call away.

By far the biggest culture shock came from the feedback system the company uses. Three times per year we invite seven or more colleagues to give us feedback. The system uses both positive and constructive open-ended feedback, as well as a scoring system, which provides the basis for our appraisals. As someone who was used to a short, very safe and unconfrontational appraisal with their manager, receiving a two-page report three times a year, with seven sets of confronting comments, was a huge shock to the system.

A personal perspective

Personally, working in a different culture in an organisation without managers has been a journey of discovery, learning, intense personal reflection and some fairly big highs and lows. It has been a big challenge to find the right balance between the freedom and the responsibility, but having successfully done so, I think I would now struggle to adapt to working with a manager.

I very much believe that removing managers is a viable option, and it can bring enormous benefits for employees. I do not however believe that it is for everyone and nor do I believe that it is a golden, quick fix solution.

Managers come in many different forms, and I’m certainly not against having managers. What I do see however is that traditional hierarchy no longer appeals to the younger generations. Their demands are much different and there is a real desire for organisational structures that are more in touch with today’s fast-paced, flexible and interconnected world.

Three things I've learnt

  1. Involving the people that have to enact change in the original thought process creates a lot more commitment to getting change done. The short gap between thinking and doing makes the organisation much more agile. It makes a bigger difference than you first think.
  2. I never realised how much I ‘reported’ what I was doing to managers. Some of the first feedback I ever received was that my colleagues “valued my opinion, but that they didn’t need to hear everything I was doing”. No longer being accountable to someone has dramatically increased my efficiency.
  3. Not having a manager is a liberating but demanding experience. You are free to follow your ideas, but the added responsibility you take for your work can be an additional weight on your shoulders. The key to dealing with the additional responsibility is self-management, which is something that has to be learnt.
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Replies (10)

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By ian.robins
20th Mar 2015 14:14

Fascinating post Nik. Really enjoyed your insights on how life without managers works. The idea of trust comes through strongly. Looking forward to your next post.

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Replying to ian.robins:
By Nik Penhale Smith
25th Mar 2015 16:17

Thanks Ian! we do have a strong culture of trust, and are trusted to be the expert in what we do. I can personally attest to it being nice atmosphere to be involved with!

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Shonette new
By Shonette
20th Mar 2015 15:22

I find the idea of a flat organisation so intriguing, but it's great to hear some examples of it actually working, as well as the culture shock aspect and challenges. Looking forward to the next installment!

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Replying to Shonette:
By Nik Penhale Smith
25th Mar 2015 16:22

Many thanks Shonette- I can safely say it does work... although the idea is nearly always met with scepticism! The cultural challenges have been an interesting journey, but have definitely helped my personal development.

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By pam kennett
24th Mar 2015 10:09

I think this is a great post which I hope gets broader coverage (I will share it!!). It is so refreshing to hear something genuinely different but not all 'Googleish' (we are so perfect). I had a question about career progression...How does this work and what are the limitations, if any, on career movement.

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Replying to pam kennett:
By Nik Penhale Smith
25th Mar 2015 16:34

I'm glad you enjoyed it Pam-I also hope it gets broader coverage! Career progression is certainly an interesting topic, and one which is a big challenge for us. It's planned to be discussed in part 4. If that's too long of a wait, please feel free to drop me an email at: [email protected] and I'll happily provide quicker details/insights.

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By JulesFell
24th Mar 2015 10:16

Thanks for posting your experience, Nik. You made the transition into a manager-free system very successfully; I wonder if that is true for everyone. Some of the aspects of a hierarchical system give people ways to hide and props to lean on, which may be hard to give up. You have relished the responsibility for getting the work done and it sounds like you are thriving. Do you know if the organisational system is based on a specific model, such as holacracy?
It would be good to think that more organisations can follow this 'trend', although it will be harder for existing organisations to transform than it is for new organisations to structure this way from the beginning.

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Replying to JulesFell:
By Nik Penhale Smith
25th Mar 2015 17:03

Hi Jules, thanks for your comment. On a personal level I have adapted very well and I enjoy working in this environment. It is however, not for everyone. I have seen some colleagues excel, whilst others have left because it wasn't for them. From experience, I see that some people are more comfortable and perform better under managers.

In terms of organisational structure, it’s not specifically based on holacracy. The inspiration came from several organisations, including Semco (and Ricardo Semler). I think it is indeed harder to make such a change and it has taken a lot of work and commitment for us to get it done, but it's been well worth it in the end!

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Alan O'Rourke
By alanorourke
26th Mar 2015 16:12

Interesting personal account of life without managers. Thank you.
Do you have any insight into the business results of it?

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Replying to alanorourke:
By Nik Penhale Smith
31st Mar 2015 12:55

My pleasure. In terms of business performance, there was a short dip after we made the big internal change in 2012, although we recovered very quickly. Over the last few years business performance has been stable and we are now starting to see positive signs of growth.

By far the biggest change we’ve seen has been in client satisfaction. Since removing managers, it has rocketed. Employees are now much more flexible in delivering to customers and we are agile enough to deliver diverse products to specific sectors.

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