Does Every Department Need a Boss?

With work staffs so small today, some departments consist of only a handful of people who are all responsible for doing the same tasks. Despite the greater number of years some members of the department or group have been with the company, the reality is all the employees have the same level of responsibility. Still, does one person need to be designated the point person for execution of department projects?

A piece in October in The New York Times by Sarah Max about small businesses brought this question to mind. The piece explores whether it is necessary to have one person designated as the “boss” when a company is co-owned equally between two people, or for the sake of argument, by a group of people. Business partners are depicted in the article happy with a co-boss arrangement, and others are described for whom this arrangement hasn’t worked as well.

Years ago, departments used to be larger with bosses able to play the role of guide or director, or the person who simply makes the decisions and plans and then steps back and lets the department’s employees do the work of carrying out those plans. Today, many, if not most, companies have been downsized so that departments in which the boss is a participant, rather than just a planner, are much more common. In this kind of arrangement, is it still appropriate and necessary to have one person known as the boss?

I would reflexively say, “Yes,” because ultimately someone has to be responsible for ensuring not just that their own work gets done, but that everyone in the department delivers their assignments complete and on time. However, I also see the advantages to creating a co-equal arrangement in which employees check up on each other and individually report on their work output. As I pointed out in my last blog, it is easy with today’s online and software systems to have individual employees record their work output. With that in mind, what purpose does the “boss” of a small department then serve? In the past, a boss would take an accounting of all of the department employees’ work output and then report that output to the manager—the true decision-maker—above him or her. Now, with systems that can require employees to log their work progress, is that middle-manager role still necessary? If all are doing the same work, it seems arbitrary or meaningless to single out one person and designate him or her “boss.”

In departments that are essentially just a group of co-equal employees, an interesting experiment would be to do away with the designation of a senior person or boss, and, instead, incentivize the employees based on group performance. In addition to each employee recording via an intranet or learning management system tool his or her progress, the employees would have an incentive they were working toward as a group. For example, if the group meets its sales goal, creates a certain number of products that get successfully released to market, or improve efficiency by a certain amount, then all individuals in the group would receive an extra $5,000 or more by the end of the year. Group incentives also could be non-monetary, such as each person in the department receiving an extra three to five days of vacation for the next year, or the privilege in the next year to keep a flex-time schedule. The important point is that, rather than being rewarded individually, they would be rewarded as a group. It’s possible an arrangement like this would make a “boss” obsolete. A key function of a boss is to police a workgroup, making sure everyone delivers their assignments. In an arrangement with a group incentive, the employees may police each other because everyone is motivated to make sure no one in the group ruins their chances of getting the reward. What do you think? Is the middle-manager boss still necessary?

I’ve found that once a person is designated “boss,” that person can feel entitled to do less than others in the group. They seem to feel after that designation that their responsibility to oversee is a job in and of itself. The idea of doing significant work aside from overseeing often is brushed aside as beneath them or out of the question. If your workgroups have shrunk enough that every person needs to be a contributor, naming one person as the overseer, rather than keeping him or her as a fellow doer, can be counterproductive. Often, you haven’t gained a “boss”; you’ve lost a worker.

How do you handle management and hierarchy in departments in which all employees essentially have the same responsibilities? Is the designation of a boss necessary? Why?


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