Letting Employees Hire the Boss

Les Landes

One of the main problems with the typical manager/employee relationship is that one person is the boss, and the other, well, isn't. Let's face it: Not many adults like being told what to do. That's true to some extent even when the boss is really great. It's especially true when employees don't have the option to say no — or even to negotiate a mutual agreement.

Information Should Trump Rank

Aside from the interpersonal tension that an of imbalance of power can produce, the manager/employee power relationship isn't optimal from a business standpoint either. That’s particularly true if you're interested in effective continuous improvement and change management. In the end, decision-making should be based not on who has the highest rank and most authority, but who has the best information and greatest knowledge about the subject at hand — regardless of "status." Good managers follow that principle as a matter of course, and it's an integral part of how they tap into employee motivation. But not all managers are that good. So the question is how to get it ingrained in the management culture throughout the company.

We've seen some clients try to "equalize the balance of power" in manager/employee relationships with the 360-degree appraisal process. Others try to generate employee input through efforts like town hall meetings, employee luncheon roundtables, senior leader blogs, and open-door policies. While well-intentioned and occasionally effective, these efforts are typically feeble in promoting a decision-making culture that's systematically based on the "best information" rather than the "most authority."

The key to creating a best information kind of culture is to make sure decisions are based on knowledge instead of titles. Here's one way we recommend to clients: Let employees hire their boss. "What?" you gasp. "You've got to be kidding, right?" Maybe a little, but not much. Here's how it works.

When you're ready to hire a new manager, you begin as usual with crafting the job description. Instead of just having it reviewed by the manager's manager, though, appoint a representative group of the employees who will be reporting to the new manager to look at it, too. That way, you get their input on what it takes to manage the function effectively from a day-to-day operations perspective. Then you go through the usual drill of selecting candidates and conducting interviews with qualified prospects.

After that, here's where you do something radically different. Instead of picking just ONE person for the job, pick TWO or THREE who meet all of the qualifications that management has set for the position. Then you let the employee representatives interview those top candidates, and THEY make the final selection of the person they feel is best suited for the position.

It's a Win-Win All the Way Around

Crazy, right? But think about it. You get the best of both worlds — someone who makes the grade for management, and gets a vote of support from the "informed" people he or she will be managing. What's more, think about how it sets the tone for more balanced decision-making in the manager/employee relationship from day one. It also sets the stage for more effective communication going forward.

Granted, the final decision and the ultimate responsibility for both performance and results on any team rests with the manager. But how you get there matters. If you want take full advantage of team insights in decision-making, and if you want employees who are willing to step up, take charge, and be held accountable for their performance, you have to treat them like adults who "have a say in the matter," not children who "are to be seen and not heard."