The Cost of Having a Boss

Management guru Gary Hamel provides an excellent explanation as to why only 21% of employees are highly engaged at work.  Contrary to common belief, it is not the type of job or salary level that determines the extent of one’s motivation, which is why companies such as Wegman’s Food Markets and QuikTrip convenience stores in “unglamorous” industries like retail consistently rank among the best places to work.

“The real damper on employee engagement is the soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority. In most companies, power cascades downwards from the CEO. Not only are employees disenfranchised from most policy decisions, they lack even the power to rebel against egocentric and tyrannical supervisors. When bedeviled by a boss who thwarts initiative, smothers creativity and extinguishes passion, most employees have but two options: suffer in silence or quit.

“In a well-functioning democracy, citizens have the option of voting their political masters out of office. Not so in most companies. Nevertheless, organizations here and there have taken steps to make leaders more accountable to the led. HCL Technologies, a progressive Indian IT services company, encourages employees to rate their bosses, and then puts those ratings up online for all to see. Bullies and bunglers have no place to hide. And W.L. Gore, the Delaware-based maker of Gore-Tex and 1,000 other products, lets its highly decentralized teams appoint their own leaders. These are interesting aberrations from the norm, but in most organizations, power is still allocated top-down.”

Until people are free from a system where their boss wields compete power over their livelihoods, companies will find it difficult to harness and benefit from the full potential of their most valuable asset.

The key to unlocking employee engagement lies in flattening the organizational hierarchy and democratizing the decision-making powers.  A good place to start is to allow employees to set their own salaries.  Teams of employees must also be trusted with the power to hire and fire their leaders and coworkers. 

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that command-and-control is no longer an effective way to manage a company.  There is no reason why responsible adults should be treated like irresponsible and dishonest children as soon as they arrive to work.  In a later post, we will explore additional democratic policies that companies can implement in order to cultivate a more innovative and engaged workforce.


How to be a “good boss”

A recent post on USNews.com listed some nice tips on how to be “a good boss in bad times.” While things such as smiling, listening, and providing feedback would certainly the workplace environment a bit more pleasant, the root causes of most employee disengagement and employee-boss problems stem from a deeper, structural level.

The main reason why most people are unhappy at work boils down to the nature of the boss-employee relationship. The definition of a boss is “a person who exercises control over workers and makes decisions.” Since most people don’t especially enjoy being controlled by someone else or having decisions made for them, it’s not surprising that so many people are miserable and feel unmotivated at work.

The best way for someone to be a good boss is to not be a boss at all, but to be a leader instead. The main difference between a boss and a leader is that bosses are selected (from above) while leaders are elected (by their peers). If you want to become a true leader, try “putting yourself up for election.” Tell your team members that you will lead them only so long as you have their support and that you agree to step aside should the team members decide at some point that you are no longer suitable for the job.


Democratic Company Profile: The John Lewis Partnership

The John Lewis Partnership is a large retailer based in the United Kingdom which generates revenues close to $9.9 billion from its 27 John Lewis department stores and 199 Waitrose supermarkets.
 
What separates John Lewis from its competitors (and from most other companies) is the fact that the stated purpose of the company, which is owned by its 69,000 employees, is to ensure “the happiness of all our members, through their worthwhile, satisfying employment in a successful business.”

The John Lewis Partnership calls itself “a unique and vibrant democracy.  We share knowledge and information about the business between Partners, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute to decision-making as well as to challenge and question.  We recognize every Partner’s right to be listened to and heard regardless of their point of view.”

In addition, every employee at John Lewis receives an annual bonus equivalent to 9%-18% of their salary, depending on the company’s profitability, with everyone receiving the same percentage.  These democratic company policies of sharing information, decision-making powers, and rewards among all employees have had a significant impact on shielding John Lewis from the impact of the current recession.

In 2008, when most retailers were hit hard by the economic crisis, the John Lewis Partnership made a $403 million profit on revenues that were 3.6% higher than in 2007, and every employee received a bonus of 13% of their salary, equivalent to about seven weeks’ worth of pay.

Here’s what the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership had to say about the secret to their success:

We’re a partnership, which means our business is owned and run by the people who work in it. It makes John Lewis a different kind of place to work for our 68,000 staff – known as Partners – and a different place to shop for over eight million customers.

Our success…over the years has everything to do with our Partners owning the business. Retailers often suffer from high levels of staff turnover. Our turnover is around half of the industry average.

Because people stay with us for longer, they know our products and our customers better. When success depends on getting a lot of things right, having experienced and motivated Partners is the difference between success and failure.

Our ownership structure also means we are stewards of the business for Partners working today and for future generations. We invest our capital carefully and demand a good return, but we make investment decisions for the long-term interests of our partners, rather than trying to satisfy outside shareholders.”

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The End of Management?

Gary Hamel, best-selling author of The Future of Management and one of the leading proponents of decentralized, innovative, and democratic management practices, recently wrote an excellent article about the following three forces which he feels “will mostly destroy management as we know it”

  • New web-based collaboration technologies
  • Dramatic changes that have made the competitive business environment more challenging
  • New expectations that “Generation Facebook” will bring as they enter the workplace

Hamel believes that we are on the verge of a management revolution that will transform society as much as the industrial revolution and that will put an end to the command-and-control hierarchical structure that has characterized the 20th century workplace. 

It will become common practice for companies to share information freely amongst all employees, and decision-making responsibilities will migrate towards the team members closest to the customers.

This shift of power and influence from top executives to the customer-facing employees carries both opportunities as well as risks for companies.  The people closest to customers obviously receive a more accurate picture of customers’ problems and are potentially better equipped to develop and deliver solutions to meet customers’ needs. 

The main challenges that executive managers will encounter will be to ensure that all employees have the ability, the freedom, and the motivation to do their jobs properly.  The best way to engage employees is to democratize management practices by making information accessible to all team members, decentralizing the decision-making abilities, and sharing financial incentives with the entire workforce in a more equitable manner.


Gore’s Democratic Culture Drives Innovation

The CEO of W.L. Gore & Associates recently gave a lecture at MIT titled “Nurturing a Vibrant Culture to Drive Innovation.”

Gore is a highly successful and innovative company that has developed a unique democratic environment.  Gore’s culture, which despises bureaucracy and hierarchy, has been credited as one of the key enablers of its explosive growth and market leadership over the past several decades as well as its expansion into entirely new product areas. 

At Gore, there are no job titles, bosses, or chains of command.  Instead, everyone is an “associate,” and team leaders are chosen by their coworkers.  New associates, who are interviewed and hired by groups of their peers, are assigned a “sponsor” to introduce them to Gore’s team-based culture.  New associates are then encouraged to join groups whose projects are best suited to their skills and interests.

Innovation and experimentation are encouraged, and mistakes are not punished.  It is therefore not surprising that Gore, which was started out as a small chemicals company in 1958, has been able to invent numerous industry-leading technologies that have dominated their markets, such as GORE-TEX fabric and Elixir guitar strings.  The 8,000 associates working at Gore’s 45 locations around the world currently generate over $2 billion per year.

Gore has been named to FORTUNE’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” in each of the past 12 years.