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Working successfully in a non-managerial environment

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It was the first weekend of lockdown when I went to the playground with my two sons of 7 and 8 years old. After ten minutes of sliding, climbing, and skating, we ran into some of their friends. Of course, we, the parents, engaged in a somewhat uneasy 1.5-meter distance conversation. Standing there awkwardly in a half-circle, the conversation took a turn, which left me, not for the last time, in a puzzling place.

I have worked at Nmbrs as a Chief People Officer for four years. Nmbrs has a board of four people and is a non-managerial organization with around 120 people. This means we highly rely on our colleagues to take responsibility, and even though that sounds like a dream for many people, it is incredibly hard sometimes.

Let’s go back to the playground. The chat went in the direction of taking care of and homeschooling kids while working from home and being a responsible professional with deadlines. To my surprise, my friend, a highly educated woman with a very responsible job and two kids, told me that she was happy after her manager had taken a certain project away from her, to protect her from burnout. Undeniably very nice of this person’s manager, but I was puzzled. Why was she not capable of making that decision on her own? Why does she need this micromanagement gesture? Why are we wired like that? This left me feeling confused.

The following week, after the kids were sent home from school to stop the spread of the virus, we as a company decided to communicate to employees how to juggle work-life balance. We felt we had to do that because we got a lot of signals that colleagues required some guidance from us on how to deal with this new situation.

My idea is that if you want to work successfully in a non-managerial environment, you have to 100% understand that an organization without managers is another reality.

Our message to our colleagues was that we understood the difficulty of the situation. We asked them to take it upon themselves to decide what was necessary for them and their families and to communicate with their colleagues about their specific situation. In other words, be transparent to your team on what is going on in your home and tell them when you can work and why.

This was the hardest subject we could have given responsibility on, it seemed. Our coaches got a lot of 1-1 requests of colleagues who needed help on how to handle this. We had to communicate this message three different times on different channels. We even dedicated a company speech to it. In the end, I had two scheduled talks with colleagues that needed an extra “ok” to take some slack from their 40 hrs workweek.

I do understand that this is a tough decision to make since we all have a standard hour contract, and we feel that we need to abide by it. However, for me, it is clear that you cannot always be at your best all the time. Things happen, and it’s important for everyone in the company, including the employers, to be respectful and understand that. Of course, this cannot happen all the time. The bottom line is that you should be able to explain to your colleagues why you are not at your best at that moment, what you need from them, and be open to feedback and different solutions.

Also, there needs to be an outlook as to how long this particular situation is going to last. As long as you are able to communicate with transparency about it and your colleagues understand, it will be fine.

But the marvel in my mind is this every time: Why are we so keen on others (managers) making decisions for us? What makes us not capable of deciding on our own? Why, all of a sudden, do we need someone else to tell us how to deal with our responsibilities in these types of situations?

I believe the answer lies in how we are brought up. We have a vision of the world with the boundaries we were given and taught in our childhood. We are locked up in the structures in which we were brought up. We were raised that way, listening to our parents, obeying our teachers, and following instructions that our manager gives us.

That is why it is sometimes so hard for people to take responsibility. It is because we are not used to taking it. It is often way easier to have decisions taken for you then to take them yourself. It is often way easier to mindlessly follow the structure, the rules and regulations than to take full responsibility and think and explain why you did what you did.

This is the holy grail for our organization. The holy grail lies where people take full responsibility for their actions and are able to explain with full transparency to others how they came to their conclusions. This is a different reality than the one we all grew up in.

My idea is that if you want to work successfully in a non-managerial environment, you have to 100% understand that an organization without managers is another reality. This means that the most challenging and the most important part to succeed at Nmbrs is to onboard really, truly, deeply in this new reality. Starting colleagues have the tendency to compare Nmbrs with what they know (school, parents, different company). So our challenge is to let people forget how power was distributed in their schools, with their parents, and in their former companies, and envision how it works if power is distributed evenly.

A manager free environment will only work if you can forget about hierarchy and take full responsibility for your actions.

At Nmbrs, you have to do performance reviews of your colleagues even when you just started. You are responsible for your peers’ salaries. One of your most important tasks is to decide who is hired and who is not. You even have an important voice in the decision-making process if a colleague’s contract will be renewed.

Responsibilities at Nmbrs are different than in other companies. Our colleagues need to feel entitled to take them, without them being given a manager name tag.

In the end, a manager free environment will only work if you can forget about hierarchy and take full responsibility for your actions and are able to explain with full transparency to others how you came to your conclusion.

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