The case for letting teams elect their own managers

Don’t like your team leaders? Throw the bums out! How workplace democracy is helping companies engage employees

Ballot with potential managers on it

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

Conventional wisdom says that employees don’t leave companies—they ditch managers. A bad boss or team leader can turn a great job into the ninth circle of workplace hell. Gallup has estimated that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

So what if you gave your staff the opportunity to pick their own leaders? Since SumAll was founded in 2011, the New York tech startup has done just that. In a recent blog post, CEO Dane Atkinson wrote that his business was “built to be a petri dish, and self-electing teams is the highest-yielding experiment we’ve tried.”

SumAll’s choose-your-own-leader policy may sound far out to some, but it’s part of an emerging trend toward more democratized workplaces. Collaborative environments that don’t rely on traditional hierarchies hold particular appeal for millennials, though Atkinson suggests the model works for employees of any age. SumAll isn’t the only company dabbling in democracy. Tangerine CEO Peter Aceto staged a referendum several years ago at the online bank, giving employees the opportunity to vote him in or out of office (the results were more than 97% in his favour). And Whole Foods lets staff weigh in on hires after the newbies have been on the job for 90 days.

Kenneth Goh, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Ivey Business School, isn’t convinced workplace democratization is a model all companies should follow. “Are employees necessarily happier and more productive as a result of this autonomy? Not necessarily,” he says. Some senior staff might resent the notion that all employees deserve a vote on leadership and feel shortchanged by a system that doesn’t necessarily recognize and reward their perspectives and depth of experience.

But Atkinson says employees rally behind leaders they have had a hand in choosing. SumAll employees typically work in groups of 10 or fewer, and each quarter the team elects a leader by secret ballot. The election system even applies to C-suite executives, who are subject to votes when they first assume their positions. (Once elected, they remain on the job unless team members force a no-confidence vote.) The quarterly elections eliminate petty office politics—no one bothers brown-nosing the boss, because the boss may well change in a month or two. And they enable employees to step forward—candidates must put their own names on the ballot—and showcase skills or interests colleagues and supervisors don’t even realize they have. “People who I never would have expected to be effective leaders win the elections and amaze the whole company,” Atkinson says.

One downside: There’s a bit of a beauty pageant effect when several team members are competing for the top role, Atkinson says. And sometimes the wrong person wins. But the problem usually corrects itself after the next election. “Productivity might suffer temporarily, but that leader is going to learn a lot,” Atkinson says. “I’ve seen team leaders bomb epically, leave office, and return to the role a few quarters later and nail it.”

Critics of workplace democratization suggest the trend has already moved to unworkable extremes. The flattened organizational chart of Holacracy, for instance, eliminates bosses and relies on employees to direct themselves. That may seem tantalizing to some, but it can cause confusion and leave offices feeling rudderless. Atkinson says SumAll’s particular form of democracy gets enthusiastic support from employees. “On balance, the team thrives with it and considers it a cornerstone of what makes us special,” he says, adding that he believes the approach could work “at any scale and in almost any environment.”