3 Lessons I Learned When I Made My Company Boss-Free It might be time to say goodbye to traditional boss hierarchies and hello to a new color of leadership.
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Bosses are taking a lot of heat these days. How bad? A 2022 GoodHire survey paints a pretty bleak picture: Eighty-two percent of respondents said they'd resign because of a lousy boss. The same percentage claimed they could do their job without any supervision at all.
Maybe it's time we let them.
If the idea of a boss-free business sounds preposterous, you probably haven't been introduced to teal leadership principles as identified in Reinventing Organizations by former McKinsey & Co. player, Frederic Laloux. The teal framework is based on three pillars — evolutionary purpose, wholeness and self-management — and teal businesses follow what's called servant (or conscious) leadership, a decentralized style that's not based on hierarchy, status or formal power. Instead, self-direction built on fluidity, trust and experience drives a teal company forward.
Morning Star is a prime example of a teal organization that's made significant in-roads (as well as headlines). Morning Star, a global powerhouse among tomato processors, is entirely driven by self-management. Workers don't report to higher-ups at Morning Star — they report to each other, and the result is significant profitability.
When my own company implemented this style, we quickly learned that teal organizations look vastly different from their top-down counterparts. Instead of "listen and obey" leadership, employees feel empowered to participate in decision-making. Since there are no silos, transparency and innovation become the norms. As a result, people feel psychologically safe and accountable. We noticed our employees sharing more ideas and taking more risks, which naturally positions the organization to evolve.
For many of us, myself included, the shift to teal away from other colors can feel awkward and even counterintuitive at first. Most are familiar with companies that value pyramid-structure hierarchies and processes. Nevertheless, we were able to flip the script with teal leadership, and you can too.
Here are just a few of the lessons I learned along the way:
1. Prepare yourself to lead in a different capacity
Because the move to teal is often a radical shift, you'll need to prepare yourself. The teal model works, as evidenced by the success of our own company and others, such as Patagonia. However, teal can't be successful if you're not 100% behind it.
I admit that getting rid of direct-report meetings and changing the traditional hierarchy felt uncomfortable initially. In time, however, I lost my feelings of uneasiness. As employees opened up and pushed their performance, I saw a surge in organizational learning, creativity and productivity. Give yourself the time and grace to do likewise, and see for yourself.
Therefore, spend some time educating yourself on what teal organizations look and feel like. Afterward, you can prepare yourself to lead in a different capacity. For me, preparation looked like asking myself important questions: What can I let go of? What don't I want to let go, and why not? Then I examined my answers and discussed my concerns with others.
Becoming more aware of the perception I create within others was also a critical step. My German directness, for example, can sometimes be perceived as stern or demanding, which isn't always constructive when trying to shift away from old leadership structures. Being aware of how others might respond to my tone or actions has helped me embrace and adjust to teal leadership and build some new skills in the process.
2. Seek out resources, coaches and mentors
Coaches and mentors who've "been there and done that" were incredibly valuable on my journey to become a teal leader. Remember: We're not superhuman. Personally, I've found it's always easier to reflect on the self with the help of others. Trying to leave my own biases behind and reflect on myself honestly is so much harder when I'm alone. If teal isn't something you've been taught or have lived before, finding others to bolster your learning is a game-changer.
Moreover, seeking out resources from people who've been in similar leadership or transitional situations can provide much-needed assurance and validation. Hearing someone you respect was also apprehensive when they switched to teal leadership gives you permission to feel uncomfortable as well. It also helps adjust your expectations and coping strategies to best support yourself and others.
The more you understand the teal "lay of the land," the more you can help others around you understand it, too. Most employees would enjoy more autonomy, less bureaucracy and a more human-centered working experience. Gallup research from last year shows that 58% want to be able to leverage their unique talents. Teal can give your team members those key opportunities to stretch their skills.
3. Don't be afraid to change up internal assessment tools
You probably have an established way of assessing current employees at your organization. So, what happens when you become teal and no longer have manager check-ins or direct reports? Well, the assessments you relied upon would no longer be necessary. The true game-changer is when you find out that traditional performance evaluations lead to the opposite of valuable feedback — and honest peer feedback without a penalty attached makes it much easier to be honest and help each other grow.
Accordingly, you'll have to replace these assessments with any number of diverse alternatives that thrive within teal structures. For instance, because teal companies are self-directed, feedback between peers is a crucial part of the process. Constant feedback helps provide a better sense of whether teammates are working well together and following up on promised commitments. Tracking time spent on projects can also help keep everyone aware of what's happening and how responsibilities are being handled.
Changing your company to a non-traditional structure won't happen simply or quickly — but it can be done. To become a transformative leader of a transformative organization, you must think beyond the boss ethos. With teal, you might just find the agility you've been missing to propel you and yours to the next level. And even if you don't want to go completely teal in the end, these three steps will undoubtedly help you and your organization.