Sammy Nickalls
October 05, 2015 2:43 pm

The word “boss” evokes a range of emotions for many people. You may adore your employer, or maybe you despise them. Maybe your boss is the reason you feel motivated to work every day, or maybe your boss is the reason you’ve got a Garfield-like attitude about Mondays. But for those who work for the online shoe and clothing store Zappos, the word “boss” will lead to an entirely different three-word response: “Don’t have one.”

According to yesterday’s report by New Republic‘s Rodger D. Hodge, the company’s CEO, Tony Hsieh, got rid of all “people managers” in April. Describing the company as “aggressively festive,” Hodge explained in his extensive piece that the atmosphere at Zappos is decidedly “llama-filled” (yes, llama-filled) and the goal is to keep everything feeling equal and upbeat at the same time. The aim for the company? “South by Southwest meets TED meets Burning Man,” Hsieh told Hodge. “But as a lifestyle, not a festival.”

As Zappos grew more and more successful, the progress started to slow down. “We had gone from being a fast speedboat to a cruise ship,” an employee told New York Times back in July. This Hsieh credited to the company’s organization. “A lot of people in the organization, including myself, felt like there were more and more layers of bureaucracy,” he told New York Times then.

But how could a company possibly operate without any leadership or management? Three years prior, Hsieh incorporated Holacracy, a management system that “replaces today’s top-down predict-and-control paradigm with a new way of achieving control by distributing power,” explains the Zappos site. Essentially, it aims to run a business less like, well, a business, and more like a city. As explains Hsieh on the site:

“Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15 percent. But when companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down. So we’re trying to figure out how to structure Zappos more like a city, and less like a bureaucratic corporation. In a city, people and businesses are self-organizing. We’re trying to do the same thing by switching from a normal hierarchical structure to a system called Holacracy, which enables employees to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager who tells them what to do.”

Sounds great, right? However, although Holocracy does away with the concept of “boss” as we know it, it’s still an incredibly rigid formula. Hodge writes:

That leaves many wondering: with so many strict rules in place, has Zappos *really* gotten rid of bosses, or just the official titles? After all, Holocracy changes a lot of the words we all associate with a professional setting: instead of “jobs,” you have “roles”; “departments” are “circles”; circles are guided not by “managers” but by “lead links.” All of this is an attempt to make Zappos reach “Teal” status, a term used in Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

The book, which is considered an essential resource in the Zappos environment, claims that many organizations are “Achievement-Orange” organizations that are all about “innovation, research and development, meritocracy and accountability,” Hodge writes, but often leave many workers unsatisfied. The next level is “Green,” which uses the same model as Orange but also focuses on family and community; then comes Teal, a rare level that Zappos hopes to reach. “The shift to Evolutionary-Teal happens when we learn to disidentify from our own ego,” Laloux writes in the book. “By looking at our ego from a distance, we can suddenly see how its fears, ambitions, and desires often run our life.”

Not much of what Zappos is doing seems clear-cut or understandable to a world that has depended on traditional management and business models. For now, only those who work at Zappos can truly know whether it is, really, an organization without bosses, but perhaps this will revolutionize the way we think about the word “boss.”

In the meantime, check out the New Republic’s article on Zappos’ unconventional management practices here.

(Image via NBC)

Related:

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