Fire that grumpy micromanager.

Get rid of the boss who is constantly tweaking your task list.

Give that CEO the pink slip when he or she is constantly nitpicking about the sales chart.

That's the conventional line of thinking for companies like Zappos that have adopted a flat-management structure, also known as a holacracy. (You might already know about the term meritocracy, which is equally confusing to people who don't speak business lingo.)

According to leadership expert and book author Brian Fielkow, companies see management as a bad thing when they react to micromanagement and think the power is misplaced. He says companies like Zappos assume that the manager (and management in general) is the problem instead of trying to figure out what is really going awry.

"About 18 months ago, Zappos announced that its organizational structure would no longer contain job titles, and put everyone in charge of their own work," Fielkow says. "Since announcing this transition and attempting to accelerate it, about 14 percent of Zappos's employees (about 200 people) have accepted severance rather than participate in the company's new organizational structure."

There is a better approach.

Fielkow says companies need to look closely at what is not working. And the solution really depends on the size of the organization. For example, small companies with just a few employees may not need constant oversight. A larger, complex business might.

Interestingly, Fielkow is not super critical of the holacracy at Zappos, because he says it is not totally flat. He says the company banned the word and title manager, but not the activity.

"The functions of a manager are still alive and well," he says. It's almost comical. Instead of using the title manager, the company has a mentor or a compensation appraiser.

"Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that any company can operate with a truly flat organization," says Fielkow. "Everyone would be doing whatever he or she wanted. There would be no alignment around a common goal. Neither Zappos nor anyone else is advocating for a flat organization." 

So, what to do about it? If "going flat" just means shuffling the deck and leads to people fleeing from the ship because they want to avoid the resulting confusion and chaos, what does work?

Fielkow says it is important to understand, first off, that the manager is not the problem. The problem is this common view of what a manager actually should do. Before dumping a management structure, companies should take a look at why micromanaging is still in vogue.

"If we put the manager in an organization that is designed (intentionally or not) to maintain the status quo, kill creativity, and fear risk taking, why are we surprised when the manager exhibits this behavior?" he says. "The 'micromanaging boss' is often a symptom of an organization that is perfectly designed to generate this result. Blaming the manager ignores the real issue, which is that many businesses operate using antiquated philosophies and assumptions."

Next, it's critical to understand why the company is not, as Fielkow puts it, articulating organizational clarity. That's a robust way of saying small business is notorious for growing fast and then not giving everyone a voice. The loud, bullying types get a voice. Fielkow says it is too easy to grow fast but fail to communicate about structure, value, and accountability. The ship is essentially sinking with or without managers due to a lack of vision and clarity.

Last, Fielkow says companies have to start training managers better. In a small company, the person in charge may have ended up with that role not because of any experience or knowledge but because he or she was just part of the company from an early stage.

"Recognize that appropriately trained and aligned managers (or 'lead links,' if you prefer) are vital to the execution of the company's mission and to the development of employees," says Fielkow. "Whether your business model is traditional or you adopt a new approach such as holacracy, a strong internal culture based on values, accountability, and teamwork should always come first." 

Interestingly, Fielkow wouldn't really call the management changes at Zappos a failure. It is more like an ongoing experiment, and time will tell if those who have left knew something about what was really happening or if the nomenclature changes (not saying "manager") lead to a cultural shift. If they do, the company might find that it has managers; they just don't act like bad ones.

Published on: Jul 24, 2015