Should We Banish Bosses?

 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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