How does a manager abolish managers?

I’m deeply excited about the future of self-managed organizations, but I’m uneasy about the way some of these organizations are undergoing the transition. Perhaps this is captured in the opening paragraph of an article from The Atlantic: “This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution….”

There’s clearly something ironic about abolishing managers “by order of the CEO.” In the old system, of course, the CEO did have the power to declare such a change. But to begin a glorious new era of empowered employees by commanding it? That feels to me like a dangerous precedent, and a recipe for all the sorts of problems that self-management is intended to solve.

I realize that this sort of transition is going to be difficult no matter what, and I don’t claim to have any magic solutions. But I do wonder what alternatives might be explored that are more in the spirit of empowerment, wholeness, and purpose. Could the CEO invite teams to experiment with self-management, and support their efforts if and when they proceed? Could the CEO begin to practice self-management, at least within her own team of executives? Could the CEO share with the rest of the company his own authentic hopes and fears about a potential transition?

And what is a CEO to do if the company as a whole does not want the freedom, responsibility, uncertainty, and pain that comes with such a transition? Wouldn’t it be against the spirit of a compassionate community to force such a change? And anyway, wouldn’t such force merely arouse suspicion, resentment, and resistance from those who it is forced upon?

In Zappos’ case, anyone who did not want to transition were invited to leave the company with generous severance pay. I like the individual freedom in this, but again I worry about the precedent: not everyone is welcome in this community.

I suspect there is still a lot of opportunity for creativity and experimentation in helping organizations transition to self-management more gradually, organically, and compassionately.


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