A Closer Look at the “Unboss”


Recent articles focusing on the “unboss” approach have caught the attention of cutting-edge companies like Zappos. But can the “unboss” movement deliver on its promise of creating high-performing organizations?

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. An “unboss” is the antithesis of a traditional manager. The unboss views himself as part of the organization rather than above it. The unboss is a team member who shuns the symbols that traditionally set leaders apart from their employees.

The unboss movement correctly acknowledges that no leader knows everything about everything. Leaders are most effective as coordinators who create trusting relationships and empower employees to make decisions. As I’ve argued many times, the most effective leaders are those who build trust and spark creativity and innovation.

However, there’s a certain naiveté in the unboss movement. “Unbossed” organizations believe that consensus decisions are the only way to move forward. They repudiate the value of a decision-making hierarchy in which senior executives are ultimately responsible for determining key business decisions.

The unboss movement argues that changes in the world of business and the world at large render such hierarchical management structures a hindrance. They say that structure impedes effective communication, especially given the rise of social media. But I see no evidence that structure itself inherently hinders performance. In fact, structure is critically important to organizational performance.

People need a system that sets priorities. People need clear expectations. People need a system to weed out poor performers. Contrary to the proponents of “unboss,” a management structure can both empower employees to make decisions and set priorities based on a nuanced understanding of the tradeoffs between profitability, customer service, pricing, and long-term environmental stewardship.

When businesses get hung up trying to reach consensus on difficult decisions, that’s when true operational inefficiency settles in. The unboss movement has placed undue emphasis on the elimination of structure without truly understanding how successful companies operate.

Learn more in my new book, The Leadership Equation: 10 Practices That Build Trust, Spark Innovation, and Create High-Performing Organizations.

LRI’s consulting is designed to achieve real, meaningful change for our clients.

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