People yearn to work in a manager-free workplace, but all such endeavours are doomed to fail. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that we need a management tier to mitigate the inevitable creeps that ruin every well-meaning utopian experiment.
Every so often in business, some well-meaning reformer suggests that the management tier – that is, the leaders that function between the executives and the individual workers – can be completely done away with. ‘People are inherently guided by enlightened self-interest,’ the pitch usually goes, ‘so people – when left alone – will always do what’s right for the company because it’s what’s right for themselves.’ Internet shoe-flogger Zappos.com is currently the poster child for this management-free management philosophy. Video game maker Valve has been a passionate advocate as well. Up until very recently, tech wunderkind GitHub was also a public champion… but not anymore.
On 6th September, Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Melissa Mittleman published an article titled Why GitHub Finally Abandoned Its Bossless Workplace. It’s a darned fun read. Perhaps it’s more fun than is normally socially acceptable; I admit to experiencing a bit of schadenfreude when I read it. Not that I have anything at all against GitHub’s people or products; rather, I take umbrage with their former organisational model and I’m glad to see that it’s claimed virtues were disproven. Again.
Even that statement comes across as unfair. To be clear, I like the idea behind the bossless philosophy. I first ran across it when I was mustering off active duty in the 90s. One of the textbooks that my head-hunter game me to help transition was Self-Directed Work Teams, a book that’s still hot and trendy half a decade after it was first published. The recruiters warned us that all of our notions about leading workers in rigid hierarchies using military (read: draconian) methods were obsolete and counterproductive. We would all have to embrace the ‘new’ zero-management model if we were going to ‘make it’ as corporate citizens. Funny thing… I never saw that philosophy actually function in the working world.
I was skeptical of the flash-in-pan business theories because I came to the head-hunters having had a lot of experience leading people. My transition from junior enlisted man to commissioned officer had involved a ton of academic study, lectures, labs and seminars. It also included a great deal of study in human psychology, sociology, anthropology and criminology. I’d been encouraged to put all of that academic theory into practice as a new platoon leader and as a staff officer. I’d gotten to see up close just how fragile some of the theoretical models of organisational behaviour really were. I agreed that there was valuable insight to be taken away from Teams (and the other business books that the head-hunter foisted on us), but I didn’t buy the outrageous claim that we could dispense with the management tier entirely.
A few years after I rejoined the corporate world, I got to visit Valve’s headquarters.  While puttering around their lobby, I read a copy of Valve’s new employee handbook. The notion that every employee was empowered to wander around freely so as to check out what everyone else was doing, and then was empowered to join whatever team he or she found most interesting sounded great. I was quite taken by the prospect of being able to leave a non-productive team in favour of a productive one with no management blowback. Valve’s structure sounded awesome. It also sounded highly implausible, given that it involved people.
That’s why I’m not the least bit surprised that GitHub’s noble experiment failed. Their ideals were decent and their vision was compelling. If everyone on their team had given their all to make the new dream come true, then it might have worked… for a while. The fatal flaw with utopian schemes is that they depend on all of the people involved to rise above their own worst impulses and to act like angels all the time. Believe it or not, many people will do just that – to be fair, most people are inherently decent and earnestly want to work in a place where they’re respected, valued and welcome. Most people will struggle to make the system work. Most people, but not all people. Sooner or later, every group either intakes or spawns a few creeps that exploit the system’s flaws and their co-workers’ noble sacrifices for their own personal gain.
In GitHub’s case, one of their alleged creeps brought them some pretty damning publicity. As Mittleman wrote: ‘Shortly after [Chris] Wanstrath slid into the CEO chair at the beginning of 2014, Julie Ann Horvath, a developer at the startup, said she faced gender bias and was pressured into leaving by the previous CEO, Tom Preston-Werner, and his wife. After an internal investigation found that he’d acted inappropriately, Preston-Werner resigned as president.’
I won’t speculate on what actually happened in that case; I’m bringing it up only to illustrate my point. People will often surprise you with how grand and noble they can be. People (in the abstract) are capable of great acts of selflessness, courage, professionalism, compassion and generosity. That being said, ‘people’, in the abstract, are often very different than ‘people’ in the form of specific individuals. When drill down to unique players, the potential for greatness is still there, however it’s usually offset by that person’s flaws, mistakes, family drama and personality. Everyone can honestly strive to be a saint, but we all frequently fall short of the ideal. Sometimes accidentally (through misunderstanding) and sometimes deliberately (by indulging our darker nature).
That’s why we have a management tier in the workplace. Teams are made up of people, not angels, and people are complicated, flawed creatures. Every one of us is capable of screwing up a good thing. Most try not to, but then the weight of circumstances undermines our better nature. We get mad. We misunderstand. We nurse grudges. We can’t take the pressure and lash out. Each flawed person then influences the equally-flawed people around him or her, triggering a chain reaction of drama generation until the workplace devolves into a frightful mess. Managers exist in business to nudge people back on track; to blunt the impact of people’s bad days and bad decisions so that everyone can get along with everyone else well enough to get some work done.
Understand, too, that some people are naturally opportunistic. They may even fervently believe in higher principles, but deep down they don’t mind succeeding at others’ expense. These are the co-workers who can effortlessly set aside their moral compass when a chance appears to seize a competitive advantage. These are the folks that lie, cheat and steal when they think they can get away with it. These people can usually rationalize their behaviour, even while they harm others.
Finally, there are the sort of people who will *£&$ up a fantastic work situation in order to pursue something that they want because they’ve convinced themselves that their desires are more important than anyone else’s wants, needs or rights. These are the Roger Ailes types – people who have power, money and influence beyond the dreams of most mortal men, and yet still sexually harass or abuse their subordinates because their libido or their sadistic need to dominate other was more important to them than their responsibilities and obligations under the law.
These last two types of exploitative co-worker inevitably creep into every organisation. They’re often indistinguishable from everyone else. They often claim to believe in the team’s vision and will even make a show of living by the team’s rules. What separates them from their dutiful teammates is that they’re willing to suspend their self-regulating behaviour in order to pursue their own objectives. They don’t feel bound by their oaths and obligations – rules (they rationalize) only apply to other people.
That’s the primary reason that a management tier is essential to business: one of management’s core function is to set and to enforce standards of acceptable conduct. A workplace that has established and maintains clear ‘red lines’ regarding acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour is more likely to pre-empt embarrassing misconduct. Rational actors will rein in their conduct to avoid getting into trouble, and irrational actors will get caught and corrected swiftly because their acts of misconduct stand out. Responsible management makes the workplace safer, more predictable and less stressful. Ideally, strong management identifies, tracks and expunges the truly egregious bad actors before they can commit acts so terrible that team morale and efficiency are irreparably harmed.
That’s not to say that the simple act of having a management tier is going to save a company from bad acts like GitHub’s and Fox News Corp’s sexual harassment scandals. Managers are people too, and are just as flawed as everyone else in the company.  That being said, the presence of a management tier brings both the ability and the mandate to police misconduct. That’s why the deliberate elimination of a management tier undermines the integrity of the workplace. In a managerless, utopian workplace, there is literally no one responsible for policing the team. If everyone obeys their better nature, it’s said, then there’s no need for policing. The key word there is if. When a creep infiltrates the ranks and violates the company’s code for his or her own gain, there’s no one to turn to in the manager-free structure in order to set things right.
People are complicated and flawed. I can’t stress this enough. Left to our own devices, without social and/or legal pressure to conform, people will act in ways that are detrimental to social order. It’s natural. It’s normal. In a way, it’s actually healthy, since boundaries need to be tested regularly in order for a group to understand where those boundaries are and why they’re necessary. A certain amount of friction and forced introspection is required to keep a society vibrant. Still, a certain amount of pressure to conform is also necessary to keep a society functioning effectively.
That right there is one of the reasons why I’m quite fond of the noir genre in fiction. Many of the best noir stories examine broken and reprehensible people struggling against their circumstances and their base nature. Some of the characters pursue exploitative gain and others pursue personal redemption or higher ideals. One of the core tenants of a noir story is that no one is ever exactly what he or she appears to be. Another is that almost all moral virtue is feigned; people only pretend to be good in order to evade others’ suspicion, right up until an opportunity arises to secure some sort of personal gain. It’s a dark and cynical view of the world, often exaggerated for dramatic impact.
One of the classic reference points for the noir setting is Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Chandler actually constructed the novel by reusing two of his previously-published short stories,  which made for a dizzyingly complicated plot. In both the book and the 1946 movie, there are significant plot points that are not only not explained, Chandler himself had no idea which of his character was responsible for the actions. This vexed the hell out of me when I first encountered the story, since I couldn’t follow the plot. It was only when I started researching it that I came across this passage in the book’s Wikipedia entry:
‘This exemplifies a difference between Chandler’s style of crime fiction and that of previous authors. To Chandler, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterization. An ending that answered every question while neatly tying every plot thread mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters with believable behavior.’
Those last four words made it click it for me. I get it. Raymond Chandler focused on crafting believable characters, which is why his works still resonate nearly 80 years later. Chandler’s characters are all deeply flawed, often self-destructive, petty, vain, deluded, confused and all too human. True, the plots don’t always line up, but real life resembles a Chandler plot far more than a Sherlock Holmes story where everything can (and must!) be explained in perfect detail.
I submit that this is something that every business owner needs to understand and embrace: People are complicated and flawed. Real life is messy and confusing. When left alone, some people will engage in destructive behaviour until made to stop by an outside force. This is why we have – and must have – a management tier.
I’d love to work in a utopian workplace where everyone acted in accordance with their better nature. It would be amazing to work in a company where everyone cooperated selflessly, communicated clearly, and could be trusted absolutely. Even though I don’t think that such a place could ever exist for more than a heartbreakingly short time in the real world, I’m going to strive to create such a space. I’m going to set high standards and do my damnedest to encourage my people to be the best versions of themselves that they can possibly be. I’m going to fight to deliver fairness, justice, accountability and decency for all of my people. I’m going to strive to achieve the best possible workplace… but I’m sure as hell not going to count on people’s sense of personal restraint alone to make it happen. I’m committed to employing leaders to help set and enforce the team’s standards… and to stand sentry against the inevitable appearance of the creeps that try to infiltrate our ranks.
That’s the other reason (I think) why Chandler’s noir stories still speak to us: his protagonists were usually detectives or reformers that couldn’t tolerate the idea of a creep getting away with egregious acts of injustice. Chandler’s flawed heroes would put themselves into discomfort and danger to try and make things right. They accepted that their world was dark and mostly hopeless, but they struggled against it anyway. That’s the sort of management that we all want and deserve: someone who forgives us our flaws, acknowledges their own and tries to make a bleak environment better by holding everyone accountable for their actions. It may not be a utopian ideal, and that’s okay.
In retrospect, it seems like the leaders that built GitHub should have spent some downtime catching up on classic films. Might have saved them a bunch of embarrassment and wasted time.
 I wasn’t there for a job interview, so I doubt that any Valvers would remember me. One of my mates was an engineer at a different game publisher and needed to collaborate with one of his peers. I got to tag along and check the place out.
 Senior managers, directors, executives, board members, contractors, etc.
 And by recycling plot elements from two of his other short stories.
POC is Keil Hubert, email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.