Every organisation is different and I for one am sure that there is no one recipe to lead. In the past four years, I have been working as a Chief People Officer at Nmbrs. I have been speaking to a lot of people in HR who are interested or inspired by the way we are working. People who come to get insights into how we steer Nmbrs without managers. After four years, there is only one thing I can truly say about the no managers concept.
When working in a company without managers, it is essential that at least a big majority of the colleagues really, truly, deeply understand that it is incomparable with working in a traditional hierarchical company. Every time I talk with a colleague who looks through the traditional hierarchical glasses, the conversation is not bringing us anywhere, because we in our brain are situated in two different realities.
Working in a company with no managers is as working in a different reality
The earth is full of people that live and work in the real world, contained within the boundaries and locked up in the structures in which we were brought up. We were raised that way, structured ourselves if you will. Listening to our parents, obeying our teachers and mindlessly following instructions that the manager gives us.
As human beings, we are wired to either fight or join this establishment, without being given the third option: changing the reality we live or work in. Nothing wrong with that status quo, just not the way we work at Nmbrs. We don’t fight or join the manager; we simply don’t have one. Together, we make the manager obsolete by creating a new reality. We eliminate the old-school way of thinking about hierarchy and structure within the organisation and rely on shared responsibility. This will not change the world, but it will change the way we work daily.
Is this decision without consequence? No. It will be difficult, there will be challenges, and we will face the same problems that every company has to endure. It will not be a fairytale, but it will be a story worth telling and worth sharing. We want to grow and get better every day. Better at onboarding new colleagues. Better at bringing them up to speed within the new reality. Better at communicating with colleagues without having to worry about your position on the corporate ladder. Better at sharing your thoughts about situations, whether it is positive or negative. It is only when we really feel this shared responsibility that we are capable of achieving our goals.
We all have to get on board, there is no old situation, just a forward view and a different way to approach. The old reality is just not relevant. The new reality is what counts.
We promote a culture of openness and responsibility at Nmbrs.
It is all about the mindset
A few months ago I delivered what is at Nmbrs known as the blue, red and green pill speech. This was inspired by an idea raised in the interview with Marleen Stikker on Zomergasten (Dutch TV). It started with the famous clip of the Matrix, where Neo has to choose between the red and the blue pill.
You probably remember right? Take blue and go on, live oblivious, live your life in the Matrix without knowing what that means. Take red and understand what the Matrix is and if you know what the Matrix is you have no other option than to fight the Matrix.
Stikker adds the possibility of a third green pill. She says to be inspired by people who don’t fight the status quo as Neo does in the Matrix but who envision a new reality. What annoys her is that these people are constantly asked to explain themselves based on the old reality. But that is beside the point for them. The old reality is just not relevant. The new reality is what counts.
My idea is that an organisation without managers is just this! Another reality. And it is not something which needs to constantly be compared to an organisation with managers. It is just something else altogether. We have the same and different problems as other traditional organisations.
So do we have problems getting people in the best place? Yes! Do we find it hard to always have the exact fair salary for each employee? Definitely! Do we need to figure out who needs to address whom in case of underperformance, absolutely! Do I want to compare if it is better than a traditional organisation? No! It is not relevant. We have decided we don’t want to hire managers and therefore in my mind it is an irrelevant exercise to compare with the other reality, namely the reality with managers.
Responsibilities at Nmbrs are different than in other companies. Our colleagues need to feel entitled to take them.
Now, for me, the most challenging and the most important part is to onboard people really, truly, deeply in our reality and company culture, since people have the tendency to compare Nmbrs with what they know (school, parents, different company). Which is human, I mean it is how we look at the world. So our challenge is to let people forget how power was distributed in their school, with their parents and in their former companies and envision how it works if power is distributed evenly. When you have to grade your colleague even when you just started, when you decide who is hired and who is not. When you even participate in the decision-making process of deciding if a colleague will continue to be your colleague or not. Based on what you have learned in the past you will most likely not feel entitled to make those decisions.
And here lies the solution. Helping people understand that this is a different reality in which you have certain responsibilities and are entitled to decide certain things. We encourage our new colleagues to actively take the green pill, to not waste time on telling what works better or different in an environment with managers, but by seeing every challenge we have in the light of this new reality. By changing your behaviour to fit in this new reality, which means being responsible for yourself in the organisation first and then for your peers and the organisation itself. This responsibility is difficult but it will bring you a lot.
In the end, a manager free environment will only work if you can forget about hierarchy and feel the responsibility you have yourself.
Working in a company with no managers brings a lot of responsibilities but also opportunities.