Every couple of years, a story about a self-managed company gets some buzz. Case in point: Zappos’ well-publicized transition from a traditional company to a so-called “Holacracy.” Determined to forge a new path toward efficiency and employee engagement, Zappos flattened out its organizational hierarchy, eliminated job titles, and banished bosses. During the company’s slow transition to this new structure, it challenged employees to adopt a radically new organizational structure or take a severance package and leave.
The root of Holacracy
Holacratic or self-managed companies look different from traditional companies in several ways: Employee roles are defined around the work and what needs to be done, rather than around individuals with specific job titles; authority is evenly distributed across self-governing teams, not held by a few powerful individuals; and, all employees, including the CEO, are governed by the same transparent rules.
Holacracy supporters blame traditional organizations and revere new structures where employees feel connected to the corporate mission, are empowered to make decisions, and are deeply invested in the company’s success. In a self-managed company, all aspects of the business get a reboot, from information sharing and job titles, to compensation and reviews.
Holacracy supporters blame traditional organizations and revere new structures where employees feel connected to the corporate mission, are empowered to make decisions, and are deeply invested in the company’s success.
Given the modern bent toward business “disruption,” you’d think Holacracy’s time had come.
There’s only one problem: the trend isn’t catching on. And for observers of the traits and tics of the Millennial workforce, it’s hard to believe it ever will.
Millennials have peers; want bosses
Millennial idiosyncrasies (crave constant feedback, want to move up a ladder quickly, need lavish attention and praise from managers, may not stay with a company for very long...) don't appear to support a shift toward self-management. And with so many Millennials in the workforce, I’m prepared to say this movement is doomed. At least until another cohort grows up and takes over.
To be sure, there are some aspects of self-managed companies that mesh with Millennial approaches to work and careers. Millennials are extremely comfortable sharing information and adopting emerging technologies and business tools. A transition to a new business practice that would be painful for Boomer or Gen X workers is far more likely to be taken in stride by Gen Y. Millennials are also known for placing a huge premium on job satisfaction, so companies that support autonomy and fulfillment could be a fit.
And yet other truths about these workers stand in stark contrast. Millennials employed in the corporate world have extracted huge concessions from their Boomer and Gen X bosses, but they’ve done so within the more traditional definitions of those companies. In some ways, they’ve demanded a return to a more hierarchical design than ever before, craving mentors, feedback, raises and promotions at dizzying (and often dismaying) rates. Millennials appear to need their managers—if only as entities to bump up against—more than ever before.
In some ways, they’ve [Millennials] demanded a return to a more hierarchical design than ever before, craving mentors, feedback, raises and promotions at dizzying (and often dismaying) rates.
Peers, a source of competition from day one, aren’t likely to perform the same role.
Helicopter parenting + self-management = discontent
These are the kids, don’t forget, whose parents helicoptered in at every opportunity, instilling a feverish sense that life is a zero-sum game and every chance to get ahead must be seized. Asking these same individuals to welcome peer reviews or a buy into a corporate structure that dissolves hierarchy involves a radical implosion of their worldview to date.
How ill-suited is today’s workforce to self-manage? Take the trend of employees deciding their own vacation time. Studies show that given the opportunity to determine their own amount of vacation hours annually, most people actually take less vacation than if there was a set policy. The same holds true for setting one’s own salary, a common practice of Holacracy companies. Millennials, driven by concerns over turbulent job markets and guided by a sense of guilt, are unlikely to embrace the spirit of these policies in a meaningful way. Which might be good for the company’s bottom line but bad for individual employee morale.
Upward mobility needs management from above
The biggest obstacle to Millennials and self-management may be this point, raised by Seth Stevenson, writing for Slate: “According to J.R. Keller, a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School…Fuzzier job descriptions and self-selecting, assignment-based teams mean the paths of advancement are less clearly defined. ‘It’s unclear how workers should think about projects as building blocks in their careers,’ says Keller. Everyone becomes less sure what the next rung on the ladder should be, or who should be next in line for it. This is even more complicated when workers want to leave—people at other companies can’t easily suss out this potential new hire’s qualifications or what level to slot her in at.’” Not easy for a cohort raised to please and achieve, and firmly focused on advancement.
This issue is echoed by a PWC report, Millennials at Work, which found that when it comes to choosing a job, “The biggest draw for millennials… is the opportunity for progression—fifty-two percent said that they felt this made an employer an attractive prospect.”
Give me a boss or I’ll go it alone
When they do wish to do away with bosses, Millennials don’t want to join a company where everyone is equal, they want to run their own company. As far as career paths go, it turns out that freelancing and entrepreneurship are more in keeping with Millennial mores than bossless, self-managed companies. According to a recent study, “Sixty-one percent of Millennials believe that the best job security comes from owning your own business rather than being employed by others, compared to thirty-six percent of Boomers and forty percent of Gen Xers.”
When they do wish to do away with bosses, Millennials don’t want to join a company where everyone is equal, they want to run their own company.
At the end of the day, current trends that speak to a new Millennial approach to work don’t appear (yet) to signal a generation-wide acceptance of dramatically new business structures. Sure, some Millennials look poised to break with tradition in pursuit of better life-work fit, higher salaries, or more autonomy. But for now, at least, the majority don’t appear ripe for self-management on the scale some are advocating. The well-worn habits of feedback, promotion and individual achievement are tough habits for most of us, Millennials especially, to break.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.
Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.