Should We Banish Bosses?

by  Wendy Appel  |  Team Dynamics

 A recent Forbes article: 31 Telltale Signs You Are A Horrible Boss got me thinking and it inspired this post. Many of us will recognize our former or present bosses described there and, worse yet, we may recognize ourselves!

I began to wonder what happens to someone when they become a boss?

Which led to … do we need to have bosses?

What practical function do they provide and do the negatives outweigh the benefits?

Perhaps the problem is embedded in the word and we need to banish “boss” from our business vocabulary?  The language we use has a profound impact on how we see and experience reality.

If you become a mom, dad, grandparent, policeman or policewoman and you step into that skin and/or uniform, you take on a role. That role is informed by your perception of what it means to be a mom; how you have experienced others in that role, and even wearing the uniform shifts your sense of self and effects how you play your role.

Recently, my friend Joan asked a a friend of hers to become godfather to her son Daniel. She described a big shift in his behavior. He stepped up and took on the responsibility and the role. His subsequent relationship to my friend and her son changed noticeably.

When someone takes on the moniker “boss” he begins to embody his perception and definition of what it means to be a boss and takes on that role as he interprets it. “I am here to boss you around,” could be one interpretation, along with many others.

Think about how the word immediately sets up a power dynamic and a parent/child relationship.

Boss is synonymous with authority figure and the role presumes that people need to be told what to do, punishments and rewards should be meted out.

Remember the Stanford Prison experiment? It was a simulation where the prison guards became sadistic and the prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. When people took on the roles they began to do, say, and feel things that were congruent with the roles they were playing. It got so bad, they had to end the experiment after six days.

So I continued to wonder, “what necessary functions does a boss serve and could those functions be served in another way?”

The most valuable things my former bosses did was to share information from above and across the organization; to set the vision and direction; to jointly set my goals and objectives; to advocate for me and my ideas; to make sure I got salary increases and bonuses; to approve vacation dates.

My former bosses also held me accountable to honor my agreements and commitments, to adhere to the organization’s ethics and standards and to be the best I could be.

One of the most unnecessary functions they performed was the annual performance review. By the time I got my review, the information was so stale, it grew mold and had to be tossed.

A comprehensive list of destructive boss behaviors can be found in the Forbes article. If the list weren’t so real and tragic, it would be funny.

Ideally, bosses are available to advise and council, to sooth and encourage, to help build confidence, to motivate and inspire … Ideally a boss is someone who is wise and transmits that wisdom to help their direct reports develop, grow and thrive both personally and professionally.

If part of the problem is the title Boss / Manager, I continued to wonder, what alternative is there?

How about mentor? I love the genesis of the word from the Greek Myth, Odysseus.

From Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, in his old age Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who placed Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus and of Odysseus’ palace, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War.

When Athena visited Telemachus she took the disguise of Mentor to hide herself from the suitors of Telemachus’ mother Penelope.

Because of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, and the disguised Athena’s encouragement and practical plans for dealing with dilemmas, the name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.


Mentor suggests a type of relationship: I am here for you. I am here to help you develop and grow. I trust that you are fully capable of doing your job. I know you will rise to my high expectations of you. I will model the way by my words and behaviors. Come to me when you need advice, counseling, guidance.

A mentor sponsors, supports, nurtures and advises.

A mentor is a wise and trusted ‘counselor’ who passes on knowledge, experience and wisdom and who opens doors to opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach.

I am aware that there are certain leadership styles for which the role of mentor would be more challenging than for others. Take, for example, someone who is prone to have an autocratic style.[1]

However, I do believe that if the title and role was mentor, even someone with autocratic tendencies might start to adopt a different set of behaviors–perhaps with some coaching. Just by the change in title, it sets up a whole other set of expectations with associated behaviors.

What kind of organizational and individual changes can you imagine as a result of this?

Perhaps you’ve seen this or a similar model implemented?

Please comment, engage and share!

[1] You can review the nine Enneagram Styles to see the different approaches to leadership and how they might warm to and/or be challenged by the role.

Post Script: as this blog was about to go to print, the following article from Wharton Human Resources came to my attention. I love serendipity: Going Boss-free: Utopia or ‘Lord of the Flies’?

It addresses some of the experiments around self-managed teams and takes a different but complimentary tack to my post.

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What People Are Saying

Tim Milburn  |  05 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Great food for thought. I’ve always said, “it’s okay to be the boss…it’s not okay to be bossy.”

The language we use in the workplace needs to change with the needs and dynamics of the workplace. Top-down leadership styles are fading. They’re not as effective. As organizations flatten, terms like boss and supervisor may need to be replaced with other more meaningful terms (mentor!).

Appreciate the post.

Wendy Appel  |  05 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Tim,
Thanks for stopping by to read and comment! I agree–the times, they are a changin’ With global organizations and globally distributed teams and more folks working at home–the traditional role of supervisor / boss has to change.

Thanks again!

Jon Mertz  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Great thoughts to embrace, Wendy. The shift to a mentor “title” facilitates many other shifts in the relationship. Another shift is on accountability. In a mentor role, accountability takes on a more active role on both sides. The person being mentored now must take on more accountability for their choices and actions while the person doing the mentoring must take on the accountability for providing the guidance, coaching, and learning opportunities.

Great post, Wendy. Thanks!


Wendy Appel  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Jon,
Great add about accountability, Jon. As you pointed out, it puts more of the onus on the person being mentored. In the boss model, many push boundaries, waiting to see how far they can go before being called out. Perhaps colleagues would take on more accountability for one another as well?
Thanks for stopping by to comment!

Vicki  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

I loved this sentence:
“However, I do believe that if the title and role was mentor, even someone with autocratic tendencies might start to adopt a different set of behaviors–perhaps with some coaching. Just by the change in title, it sets up a whole other set of expectations with associated behaviors.”

I’d love a chance to find out.

I have had significantly more “bossy” bosses than mentors. Brand new first-time managers especially seem to feel that they have to prove themselves by being controlling, bossy, autocratic, and dictatorial.

In my world (programming) I’ve thought for years that the “boss” should be replaced with more tech leads and project managers. Let the team be a manage the work of its members (I worked in a team like that for a few months. It really can work.)

Wendy Appel  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Vicki,
I am so glad you stopped by to comment. I have heard varying reports of self-managed teams in terms of their ability to truly self-manage without a “Lord of the Flies” environment unfolding. Seems like you have had a positive and successful experience, even if short-lived. Very hopeful. Perhaps with a rotating position of team lead, it could really work out? All we know is that what we are doing now is not working out so well …
Thanks again for your comments!


Vin D'Amico  |  07 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Yes, the psychology of managing is a complex topic. In the end, I think a huge problem is the simple lack of training and coaching received by new “bosses”. It is often assumed that star performers will go on to be managers. The hope being that they will impart their wisdom on others. Okay…but how are they supposed to do that? What training have they had in the art of teaching and mentoring?

Being able to do something well does not imply being able to train someone else to do it. Very different skills are involved. Changing the psychology will help though new bosses will still need a lot of help.

Wendy Appel  |  07 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Vin,
Thanks for your comment. It is discouraging to read your post because this has been going on for such a long time. Back in the day, I was an account executive. The best of us were expected to become managers. We weren’t considered ambitious enough if we didn’t aspire to the position. As you rightly point out, these are two distinct roles and they require different skill sets. There was very little support and prep to step into that role. So I am discouraged to see that after so many who have come before and after, this practice has changed very little.
Absolutely agree, changing the psychology isn’t enough.

Linda Galindo  |  08 Aug 2012  |  Reply

When it comes to considering something like “banishing bosses” I’d suggest it be considered by
looking through a lens of personal accountability. Doing so has assisted me immensely in understanding who I am working with and what they need.

For example, an employee who lives at a low level of personal accountability, is full of excuses, finger-pointing and blame when expectations are not met. Nothing is ever their fault, they tell the story of what happened and who did what. This employee needs to be managed. If the manager avoids holding them accountable because “it’s just easier to take care of it” they are a poor manager and begin to attract more and more employees who need to managed. That manager may even get a lot out of rescuing, fixing and saving poor performers completely oblivious to the fact that this sets up punishing the best performers who get tired of it and eventually leave. Good managers hold these excuse-filled individuals accountable, clarify expectations and move them along to a point that they need less managing and more coaching. If the employee won’t move to that point, managers manage them out of the organization.

Coaching, in my opinion is for employees who demonstrate personal accountability, don’t excuse or blame very often, usually take ownership for their role in what is not working and suggest or seek solutions. Coaching meets their need.

Mentoring is for employees who demonstrate total personal accountability, always take ownership for their role in what is not working individually and collectively. These individuals understand that if one of us fails, we all fail. They do not treat personal accountability as a zero sum game. ( They also understand that being “mentored” by someone who does not see themselves as totally personally accountable for results good or bad is going to be a poor match as a mentor for them.

Banish bosses? Whether that answer is yes or no, I think that no matter what we must grow our skill to mentor, coach and manage, recognize the level of personal accountability we are dealing with, and then match the skill to the need.

Wendy Appel  |  11 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Linda,
Yes, I can see you are reading my post through the “accountability” lens. Your concern for how one would be held accountable or for personal accountability is understandable and I share your passion for accountability. A blog was too long to go into how this idea could be implemented. See Jon Mertz’s comment related to accountability, above.

Suffice it to say that I was floating the notion that by virtue of a title / roll, we start behaving “as if,” and how we perceive that roll. The language we use shapes our reality. If we used the title “mentor” along with expectation setting and coaching for that role, perhaps people would behave differently. Perhaps we could move away from the parent (authority) / child set-up? Perhaps accountability would be enacted in an entirely different way because of the new title/role and associated perceptions of that role?

Thanks so much for your comments.

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