How do you work without a boss? Building a sense of responsibility in a non-hierarchical organisation

Five years ago, we gave up the hierarchical structure to build an organisation based on partner relationships. The inspiration for this change was the book of Frederic Laloux’s “Working Differently” and “The Boss, Who Has Time” by Andrzej Jeznach. The motivation to make the final decision was an important issue – the desire to build a non-hierarchical company without CEOs, managers and employees. Only a team of people who want to work together on cool projects.

The next step on this path was Piotr Duszyński’s resignation from the CEO role. As a limited liability company, we have a board, but we do not have a CEO. Few people know that companies in Poland can operate like this.

Reading the introduction, you might think the article is only for people wanting to build a teal organisation. However, I hope that this article will inspire you to trust people in companies with more complex structures than ours. This text will not be a review of research but just a brief description of our struggles to build a self-governed organisation.

Is it easy to work without bosses?

It is not. If you are considering a similar transformation in your company, consider the motivation for this change. Will it be a good move for your organisation? Will it work in your specific ecosystem? This is not a universal recipe for success, and in our case, it was simply about creating a team by the values we profess ourselves. This requires huge trust reserves, which is not easy in our region.

We are a nation where you have to earn trust, and many people believe you cannot trust someone because we will surely lose it sooner or later. Such opinions prevail among a large part of our society. In sociological research, in which the readiness to trust others is checked, we are usually at the grey end. In one of the most current (first quarter of 2022) studies conducted by Ipsos, only 16% of Poles answered yes to the question: “Generally speaking, can most people be trusted?”. We are 26th out of 30 surveyed countries. Of course, someone may consider such a result as positive because such an answer in a survey is associated, for example, with reason or caution. However, in building a self-governing team, this can be a big obstacle.

So how do we do it?

It’s not easy, but we’re moving towards building the aforementioned responsibility among team members. The overarching goal, which we strive for (although we know it is not fully achievable), is a situation where each organisation member, making decisions or actions, considers the good of his or her. At the same time, others trust that each of us does the same. To get closer to this unattainable state, we introduce certain rules that are supposed to help us.

Good practice in DeSmart

Trust is the foundation

A new person who comes to us is treated as a full team member. They have the same privileges as the people who founded DeSmart. We believe that people are okay with us. We do not control, we do not check, we do not go and do not inquire. We assume that everyone can be trusted, and one of our values is trust. Internally, we call it trust-ank, a combination of trust and respect. Paradoxically, this is not easy because we are used to control. Trust, on the one hand, frees you because you can make decisions yourself, but on the other hand, it creates some pressure. The awareness that you are responsible for a given matter is a certain burden which not everyone bears well. From the organisation’s side, it is important to make this person aware that nothing will happen if they make a mistake. We do not apply any penalties. Making mistakes is human.

Access to Information

If you encourage people to make decisions or increase their scope of responsibility, it is worth giving them a basis that allows them to take conscious actions. This is the information in our knowledge base and various operational documents related to the company’s operations. For some, awareness of access to finance is a big challenge. People working with us have access to accounting documents. In some periods, this can be stressful. This rule is related to transparency, another value important to us. This means that we do not hide any information from each other, especially uncomfortable ones. An example is negative customer feedback, which was only passed on to one team member. According to the value of transparency, the person who received feedback should pass it on. It is also important to inform the client that this is inconsistent with our values, and we ask for direct feedback from all team members.

Responsibility for the team

If we talk about responsibility for the organisation, a piece of this cake is also responsibility for other people, their mental well-being, and satisfaction with work or development opportunities. For example, if a team member has a harder period, we don’t wait for a manager to talk to him because we don’t have one. We support each other to get through it together. We also work on making everyone feel noticed and aware that their work is important to others. Additionally, we have created a gratitude tool, which we called PanDa. It has a web version but is also integrated with Slack. We use it to thank each other and then go to the general company channel. This way, we learn interesting things about what’s happening with other people. To make the thanks even more powerful, we introduced a rule that the more Pandas we produce in a given month, the more money we allocate to the chosen charitable purpose. And it works!

Limiting intermediaries

In our organisation, we have a flat structure. We do not have project managers in the traditional sense, and the whole team is responsible for the project’s success. Thus, every person working on the project knows everything about it. Responsibility for the project is full for all team members. The lack of a protective umbrella causes some people to naturally take responsibility for the project’s success, often becoming its informal leaders.

Recruitment. By the way, we invite you to our current offers;)

The first meeting with the candidate is more like a chat between friends than a recruitment interview – at this stage, we do not discuss technicalities. We care a lot about the candidate not being stressed and removing the so-called recruited mask. We ask for this at the beginning, and in most cases, it works – we get an open and honest attitude and curiosity: “How does it work with you?”. If something we do not like causes the red light to light up, we try to clarify it continuously. At the end, we give candidates feedback. We do not consult this among ourselves. We say how we see this person, what suited us and what did not. It is quite difficult, especially if you must tell the candidate something in their behaviour or attitude does not suit us. We believe that we build trust from the very beginning, and if any of the parties to the discussion does not suit the other, it is better to clarify it right away and even thank each other rather than torture ourselves for the next few months. We also ask for feedback. We ask what we could improve in our process, what went wrong, and what you liked. Candidates often tell us this is the first conversation in their life where they did not stress and could say what they think. From the very beginning, we are guided by the value of courage and are not afraid to talk honestly with each other.

At the end of recruitment, but before employment, we present the most important rules concerning the operation of our company. We discuss them and explain them in detail. If doubts appear at this stage, the candidate can still calmly withdraw. We also want the person to be our partner to know what working in our company looks like and not have any doubts. From our experience, this stage allows us to cooperate fairly effectively only with conscious people. Although, of course, we do not always make mistakes – just like in a standard organisation with a hierarchical structure. This is natural and will happen.

Communication

Be self-aware

When you ask people for something or engage in certain activities, be sure whether they are engaged, or you force them to do it. Sometimes, even unconsciously, it is more convenient for us when others accept our ideas, even if we know they disagree.

Be assertive

Refusing is a very difficult but important aspect of our organisation’s life. We strive for people to be able to judge for themselves what is good for both them and the company. We have a lot of work with assertiveness in the team so that people can believe that their opinion matters and they do not have to succumb to others just because they have shorter service, experience or less strength. This was a difficult task, and it took me a long time to make this leap.

Give feedback

This is another big step to building responsibility for yourself and the organisation. This is not an easy skill because often, we do not tell other people what we think. At DeSmart, we encourage people to give each other feedback, thanks to which we will clarify contentious issues faster. We communicate faster with honesty. This also translates into private life – I get feedback from people I work with.

Decision making

I’m writing about this at the end because it is the most important area associated with increasing the sense of responsibility. To change or improve something, we have to make decisions. There are a few issues that can help.

Freedom

We just let people make decisions. It will sound radical, but anyone can decide in our organisation. Of course, this is associated with some risk, but contrary to appearances, people mostly do not thirst for destroying companies in their blood. From our experience, a bigger challenge is building courage in the team to make decisions than the consequences of recklessly making them. I do not recommend an orthodox approach to anyone, but I encourage you to increase the space where people can make decisions. It saves a lot of time and pressure from the managers, and thanks to freedom, people can often surprise us, usually positively.

Tools

We introduce tools for collective decision-making. Decisions are usually made in three modes:

  • I make the decision myself.
  • I consult my decision with the part of the team chosen by me.
  • I inform the whole team about the desire to make a decision and conduct consultations with people who want to help me in making or not making this decision.

There are no rigid scopes here when I can act alone and when I have to consult something. We use common sense, and in most cases, it is enough. Making decisions in a group of people whose interests and needs do not always go in the same direction is not easy, but the consensus method helps us greatly. We have moved away from democratically making decisions because, at the organisational level, this method divides more than it connects. Voting is a very brutal form of decision-making and often results in decisions that do not consider very important issues and ignore the needs of those who voted against them.

Work organisation

Organise work in such a way as to give people space to make decisions. If we want people to make decisions independently, they must be able to do so. An example of such work organisation is Scrum, which forces the inclusion of all team members in the decision-making process related to a given project. In our case, it is mainly about involving people in the life of projects and the company (e.g. all meetings in the company are open meetings, and team members sometimes participate in sales meetings, are included in conversations with the client and participate in all stages of the project, cooperating directly with our client during this time).

Epilogue

Ultimately, I want to raise one important issue: Why build a sense of responsibility for others for the organisation? The most important thing is for us to have a sense that we are creating it together and that we all have the same rights, and in the end, we, as members, are in the first place, not the bars in Excel. The idea of HUMAN FIRST, the guiding principle, was born in this way.

Thank you for familiarising yourself with the article. I would love to talk to you about how you deal with organisational culture in your company. I invite you to contact me by email. I will be happy to meet and talk.

The article was originally published in the book “HR in IT”.

Want to learn more? Check out HR W IT.

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