Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Could employees choose their own manager?

Someone once brought up to me a plan about enabling employees to choose their own manager. The idea has stuck with me for a while, and being in my current position of authority I’ve pondered it more actively. I’ll use this post to collect my thoughts, and maybe present some ideas for discussion. I’m not going to evaluate the benefits or if this is a good idea, but only think about the practicalities.

First, let’s define the role of “manager”. There are many ways the role of manager can be split up or changed or redefined, but I’m specifically going to talk about the extremely popular and stubborn setup of Dev->Manager->Director->VP->CO, or whatever similar hierarchy. I do believe a better structure exists (or that the lack of structure is better!), but I have not seen it, and this arrangement is certainly the most popular, so let’s work from that.

Second, let’s define the manager’s responsibilities. There is the leadership aspect (setting direction for a team/group), and there is the procedural aspect (hiring, firing, raises). These can be found in the same person, or separate. If we operate in a strict hierarchy, where everyone in a team reports to a team’s lead, leadership and procedure must be handled by the same person. If people report to a “department manager” or someone else who is not a team, leadership and procedure are handled by different people.

That established, how would “choosing your manager” work?

“Choosing your manager” would mean individually choosing only the procedural person. The leadership person must be chosen collectively. The reasons for this are obvious. They could be the same person, though.

Collectively choosing the leader but having an assigned procedural manager will not work. The person doing the hiring, firing, and appraising ends up with the power anyway. It’s not fair to the leader and results in terrible politics when things are not in perfect alignment.

Choosing managers would basically prohibit outside hiring at management level. Good managers want to continue to be managers, and while I do believe they need to be talented programmers/designers/whatever, many would not want a 100% full time role with only the hope/possibility of doing management later. So you have cut down your pool of experienced managers significantly. But maybe that’s ok (most managers aren’t very good anyway).

The procedural stuff involves significant confidentiality in a traditional company. Generally, a manager is first and foremost vetted by management, and only secondarily by her reports. To flip this on its head would require radical transparency. Anyone at any time could become a “manager” and have access to extra confidential information. Salaries, at the very least, would need to be common knowledge (which would imply many other things are common knowledge).

Transparency is the big issue. Employees choosing their own managers would require a radically non-traditional company. At this extreme, you may as well get rid of the notion of managers altogether. Unfortunately it’s traditional companies that would benefit most from structural management changes. But at this point, I’m skeptical of “employees choosing their own manager” being a good idea. The thinking is in the right place! But I don’t see the way there. I’d love to hear of companies where this is done, though, as some concrete examples would help validate or disprove these thoughts (Spotify is the closest I can think of).

2 thoughts on “Could employees choose their own manager?

  1. Craig Spiers says:

    Semco, by way of Ricardo Semler’s books, have variously arranged employees selecting supervisors and being involved in key personnel hires.
    They’re exceptionally non-traditional, though.

  2. Thorsten says:

    I may have to re-read their leaked onboarding book as i am not sure i got the details still right. But, at the very least, they definitely seemed to be a radically non-traditional company. (Here is a copy: http://dl.pcgamer.com/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf) They seem to be more on the “remove managers alltogether” side of things.

    I love of alot of their approaches. But, (and this is a BIG BUT) i also think if such a structure can work for you also depends on your clients. When working with big OEMs for example you have to match their structure to some extent to be able to serve them well.

    Cheers,
    Thorsten

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