WTF   //   May 17, 2024

WTF is an unbossed culture? (and does it really drive productivity)

How much do managers help versus get in the way of those they supervise?

That’s the question at the crux of “unbossing” – a term for a leadership methodology that’s kicked around for a while but has had renewed attention within companies due to recent layoffs with cuts targeted at eliminating unnecessary management layers that will allow teams to operate in a more self-directed manner, according to workplace experts.

It’s also as employees coming out of the pandemic are placing an increasing amount of value on their flexibility and autonomy over how they do their jobs, after employers were forced into giving them that during the age of remote work.

High-profile company executives like Novartis’ CEO Vasant Narasimhan have praised unbossing and built a culture around it, lending some credence to the idea that the method can solve current productivity challenges by making employees feel a stronger sense of ownership and connection to their work and organizations in hybrid environments while driving better business outcomes, workplaces experts say.

But what exactly is the difference between a so-called unbossed and bossed culture with organizations?

Here’s a primer.

Explain the difference between a bossed and an unbossed culture.

Management styles exist on a spectrum. On one end lies the most hands-on micromanagers, and those whose duties are mainly to allocate work to their subordinates and frequently check in with them. “They basically believe their job is to tell people what to do,” said Josh Bersin, global industry analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company. On the other “unbossed” end, managers are more hands-off and check in less frequently, granting staff more autonomy and empowerment over what they do to meet overarching team and company goals. Ultimately, in unbossed cultures, managers are able to assume more of a leadership than a supervisory position.

The idea comes as middle managers are increasingly being eliminated amid layoffs and company reorganizations today, with job cuts for middle managers accounting for 30% of all layoffs in 2023, up from 20% in 2018, according to a report from Live Data Technologies.  And major companies like Bayer and Citigroup have vowed to cut unnecessary layers of management in favor of having more self-directed teams.

“Having multiple unproductive layers of management can impede productivity for an organization – with one of the biggest challenges being an ineffective flow of information back and forth between decision makers and those on the front line that ultimately touch customers, solve problems and carry out daily organizational tasks,” said Jenny von Podewils, co-CEO of Leapsome.

“A leaner organization can ultimately offer faster and more effective decision-making, better collaboration between leaders and employees and more streamlined communications throughout the company,”  von Podewils said. 

Whether to cut costs due to economic uncertainty, or due to adoption of new technologies making certain roles less necessary, the move toward “unbossing” is a firm example of letting employees have more control of the way they do their jobs. It also speaks to the ongoing issue of trust in the workplace.

So no more managers?

Unbossing itself does not necessarily entail a complete elimination of managers, but more so creating flatter organizations where managers are less hands-on and have a larger cohort of direct reports. Ultimately, it’s about rethinking their roles and how they can better do their jobs to help staff meet company goals rather than the other way around.

“Companies began to realize that we don't have to watch over what people are doing all day, as long as they know what they're accountable for."
Josh Bersin, global industry analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company.

For employees in unbossed organizations, “They can operate with much more independence in certain situations, but it also puts pressure on them to be accountable for their results and performance,” said Joe Galvin, Vistage chief research officer.

Since the pandemic there’s certainly been a shift in perceptions around autonomy and trusting workers when they aren’t being so closely monitored. That’s especially true for Gen Z workers who started their careers in remote or hybrid arrangements. “Younger workers in particular essentially have come to the conclusion that they don’t want to be told what to do,” Bersin said.

And during the era of remote work, “Companies began to realize that we don’t have to watch over what people are doing all day, as long as they know what they’re accountable for. How they do it is really up to them, not up to me as the manager,” he said.

What role does AI play?

One major company championing unbossed culture is Novartis. A key part of managers’ jobs is to stay on top of their subordinates’ learning, development and growth at the company, and Novartis relies on AI tools now to help staff more actively drive their own career progression.

It uses a talent match tool, which is an online networking platform to help staff plan their development by offering personalized recommendations for career opportunities, projects, mentorships and other assignments within the organization that are aligned with their skill sets. It also displays available roles at the organization.

It also uses a “match learn” program which is a learning experience platform offering personalized learning recommendations to help staff get up to speed in certain areas allowing them to meet shifting business demands. And its self-assessment tool allows staff to discover their strengths and areas for improvement to help them ultimately shape their plans for career progression accordingly.

What are the downsides?

Moving toward an “unbossed” culture does come with some risks. Staff may be more prone and able to quietly quit their jobs by simply giving minimum effort with less supervision and infrequent check-ins. “People can hide in this digital environment much more readily than what they could before,” Galvin said.

"It's so important in this flatter organization that they think about creating mentors, connecting to workers, and ensuring that workers are connected at a human level as best you can."
Joe Galvin, Vistage chief research officer.

But at the same time, micromanaging can also lead to quiet quitting. “When you’re micromanaged you can get so frustrated by this other person taking away all of your sense of autonomy, so you actually feel less motivated than you do when you’re more empowered,” Bersin said. 

In unbossed cultures with fewer managers and more of their jobs being handled by AI tools, another risk is the loss of important direct human connections and relationships at work.

“The downside is they lose that human connection. Your boss determines so much about your world. It’s so important in this flatter organization that they think about creating mentors, connecting to workers, and ensuring that workers are connected at a human level as best you can,” Galvin said. 

Managers in unbossed cultures also need to have evolving skill sets to truly make themselves useful as AI completes more tasks for them and as workers require less attention. “They have fewer managers and leaders, and so they better be better,” Galvin said.