Taking initiative, backing your own judgment and not answering to a boss all the time sounds like heaven – especially if you are not the boss! Common sense would dictate that flatter structures lead to empowered workers, more productivity and successful businesses, right? Maybe not. A recent article published by the Australian School of Business poses the question – will a boss-less office improve productivity by empowering workers or does it lead to a latter-day Lord of the Flies where the strong dominate the weak?

Adam Cobb from Wharton Business School describes the boss-less office as signifying a very democratic way of thinking about work, with everybody taking part in decision-making and decisions being made where the real expertise lies. However, if not managed carefully, anarchy and then fascism will prevail. Cobb describes one Animal Farm-style situation where workers were more oppressed than when the boss was there. “Everyone became a monitor, constantly checking up on their fellow employees, even setting up a board to track what time people came into work and when they left”.

One manufacturing firm found employee empowerment too successful. Having let teams set their own production targets, many of the teams smashed them. However, with no central co-ordination and intervention, inventories of stock rose to unsustainable levels. There are companies that have managed decentralisation well. South West Airlines, for instance, empowers its staff to decide on customer complaints without referring upwards, leading to greater satisfaction. This practice must not be too outlandish, as South West is said to be the world’s most profitable airline. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Employees don’t need to be micro-managed on an hourly basis but need guidelines and boundaries.

A recent BRW article suggests that perhaps managers need to see themselves as working among equals rather than being part of the hierarchy – that is, they are no better or worse than the people they manage, they just have a different job to do.

Managers should support the people around them, removing obstacles and encouraging better work, a model known as “servant leadership”, a phrase coined by Robert K Greenleaf in the 1970s to describe a style of leadership that is empathetic and influential rather than directive and domineering.

Eileen Walsh, Director of Professional Services at iHR, believes that effective leadership is key. “If a business is looking for long term success, balanced leadership with clear guidance and direction, encompassing employee engagement is crucial in achieving sustainability. Changing the culture around leadership and team interaction can help a business in several areas at once; staff retention, productivity and innovation to name a few.”

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