When we get rid of:

  • Managers
  • Performance Reviews by a Manager
  • Promotion Committees by Managers
  • Strict hierarchy
  • More managers
  • Titles

We get:

  • Quicker and more informed decision-making
  • Less (much less) politics
  • Aligned and motivated Team members
  • Less (much less) confusion about who is doing what
  • Equitable value share

There’s quite a bit to break apart here, so let’s start with the difference between “titles” and “Roles” and why “titles” (such as Manager) don’t make sense on a Team.

First, we can’t be the only people that think “titles” are merely ego-driven words that serve no purpose. On LinkedIn, when we see an acquaintance become a “Director” of “Who Gives a Shit” at “Company I’ve Never Heard Of.” It doesn’t mean anything to us except ego. Even better, something like: Executive Senior Vice President of Business Development for Special Projects. We refer to this as “the super nebulous title that makes people sound important until you think ‘WTF do they actually do?’”

What we do at work, in reality, is roles. We take on numerous roles, usually across different parts of an organization. If you’re good, you’ll be asked to adopt more and more roles. We are accountable for different results in these different roles. Some companies call an extra role, “20 percent time.” How about we just call that another role, which is exactly what it is. Also, when you’re in a Team, whether one that’s centralized and distributed or flat and co-located, it’s just much easier to hold yourself and others accountable to role-based goals. A title is “Associate” and a goal for being an Associate is…??? A role is “Product Designer” and an associated goal could be “Build low-fi mockup of v3.2 for team review by next Friday.”

Roles -> role accountabilities -> what actually do -> less ego -> less politics -> Team cohesion

Titles -> negotiate during job offer -> ego-based -> don’t tie to accountabilities -> performance feedback at manager discretion -> more politics -> limited team cohesion

We’ve heard people say, “Well you need a title when you meet people external to the business.” Do you really? Do you really think that? Do you really think someone isn’t going to “do business” with you because you’re not a “Senior Manager” even though “Senior Manager” has no shared world context. If someone is good at what they do, and what they do provides value, our bet is they’re going to be okay. If you have many roles, why not share the most relevant role with the person or people you’re talking with? Or why not say, “My background is in X so I support Y and Z?” Or even, “Last week I worked on this and this week I’m working on this.” That means something to people (and your parents). Being a “Vice President” at a bank could mean you do sales (investment banking) or sales (consumer banking) or sales (business loans) or sales (credit cards) or sales (digital assets) or sales (custody products) or sales (trading products) or sales (recruiting)...

Furthermore, failing up is real. It took us many years to grasp this concept. But we kept seeing it again and again and again and again. (We’re starting to become concerned it is the norm in business). People who should not have gotten “titled-up” become Chief of something or other. Someone with the sociopathic qualities to get promoted above their capabilities gets the shiny new title that drives more ego. So, if we can all agree failing up is a huge problem in businesses, why would we care about titles? A title doesn’t even mean you are good at what you do! Who wants to work for someone who is title-obsessed? 

And, not trying (okay, actually trying) to beat this point to a pulp here, but you aren’t a “Vice President of Systems Development.” Most likely you’re a “Homo Sapien with a gender identity.” You’ve got some cells, some microbes, bada-bing you’re a mammal with two mammal parents.

Okay, finally...If you think you need a title, we recommend you dive into what part of that need is reality-based or ego based. We’ve found it’s 99% ego. And in the future world of humanistic and pragmatic work, we find ego acts only as a hindrance to Teams. Remember, titles are created from the fiction-making mind of homo sapien. Acquiring a title does not change your DNA or microbial count (although it might temporarily flood your brain with dopamine which might temporarily alter your microbial count). 

All of this is to say that, when you move from a title-based system to a role-based one, accountabilities and responsibilities become much more clear not just to the individual owning a role, but to the organization as a whole. And alas, you don’t even need that one person called a “manager.” 

Ah, managers, the supposed glue holding the team (lower case ‘t’) together. All three of us have been managers at one time in our careers. And all three of us thought, “This is a really dumb title.” Because we all, individually, came to the realization that our best employees were going to do their best work the quicker we got out of their way.

Some say, “Yeah, exactly, managers exist to help unblock employees.” When we hear that we think, “That sounds like a pretty terrible job.” Instead of fixing the actual systemic problem, companies default to paying someone to deal with the bureaucracy.

Think about it this way: We’ve heard people cite a study from Google where Google employees studied workers at Google (other Google employees) to see if managers (at Google) were valuable. And get this: Google, in a study conducted by employees of Google, determined that managers (at Google) were valuable. One of us worked there and couldn’t agree more: Managers at Google are valuable at Google. Duh!

When you work at a political, growth at all costs, inauthentic environment such as Google where your closest coworker will stab you in the back to get ahead, managers are valuable. In order for anything to get done you need someone to step-in and say, “Stop trying to do what you think is best for the company and start doing what I think is best for the company.” And even then, what they’re really saying is, “Stop trying to do what you think is best for the company and start doing what my boss and her boss said is best for the company.” And even then, what they’re really saying is, “Stop trying to do what you think is best for the company because you think it’ll make you look good on your performance review even if it’s not best for the company and start doing what my boss and her boss said is best for the company.”

Don’t be Google and you won’t have the problems necessary for “managers” to exist. Unfortunately, Google, for all their “smarts” extrapolated what works at Google to more than Google. This is some form of logical fallacy. We see fraud and we call fraud.

The truth, as we’ve discovered, is that Teams don’t need managers. And when you don’t need managers or titles, you don’t really need hierarchy.

As Sobol co-founders, we refuse to use terms like CEO, COO, CTO, etc. Why? Well obviously because they are titles. But also because it implies hierarchy. We take roles on Teams, act as mentors, provide input, and will act as arbiters on tough decisions. But nothing we do prevents others from bringing their best self to work, acting on the advice from others, and bringing value to the entire company. 

We started with a discussion of roles because roles are what constitute a Team. (Yes, one person can have numerous roles on different teams (and most likely on the same team)). And role-based teams don’t need hierarchy. Associates report to Directors because that is how the top-down command-and-control titles based system works. Roles can have accountability partners (discussed later) but the need for hierarchy is loosened. 

Teams that work together, transparently, based on role accountabilities focus on their work. Not side distractions of titling or politicking their manager to like them best. 

Teams, after all, are the Future of Work.

We will, of course, dive into all this more in-depth. But please keep in mind:

  • Yes, Teams can have leaders.
  • Yes, Teams can have decision-makers.
  • Yes, Teams can have mentors.
  • Yes, Teams can even have some form of hierarchy if it works for the Team.

Again, there is no one “right-way” to Team. We’re just saying if you’re gonna work on a team, work on a Team. Get rid of titles, focus on roles (and accountabilities for those roles), and the strict hierarchy will naturally fall out of place.