"Four years later, I would argue that self-electing teams are the antidote to all the spiteful bosses, petty politicking and bureaucratic inertia that scare away talent and strangle innovation," he wrote in the column. Atkinson has gotten attention for other unconventional management tactics, as well—he makes salaries and ownership stakes transparent to other employees, and puts job applicants through a trial period before getting officially hired. He wrote that SumAll "was built to be a petri dish, and self-electing teams is the highest yielding experiment we've tried."
Though his voting practice is not new, Atkinson said he chose to write the column this week because of all the recent focus on Zappos and the issues they've had with "holacracy," a radical management approach the online retailer is now embracing that entails no bosses, no traditional corporate hierarchy and no job titles. Zappos's struggles with the approach, which is also known as "self-management," have been chronicled in multiple recent media reports, which have described it as painful, weird and a productivity drain.
While Atkinson thinks there's such a thing as taking a concept too far, he also sees strong merits in letting teams have a voice in how they're run. "I didn't want the baby thrown out with the bathwater," Atkinson said in an interview with the Washington Post. "I think there's still a place for democratic participation" in the workplace.
Voting on bosses or colleagues isn't exactly a new idea. For instance, many large partnerships, such as Deloitte, vote for their CEO. Earlier this year, staff voted on who would be the next editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper. At Whole Foods, new hires can be voted in or out after 90 days on the job.
The concept of democratic workplaces has long been studied by academics and highlighted by consultants. Atkinson, however, mostly relied on his instincts when figuring out how to make SumAll, a venture-backed company that is yet to be profitable, a better place to work. "We read the holacracy stuff when we started and we got scared because of the lack of basic fundamentals," he said. What he wanted was something that held team leaders accountable. "We were just trying to make an enticing work environment."
Here's how his approach works. Each quarter, the company's eight individual teams vote on who should lead them. Candidates have to enter themselves for consideration, and voting is anonymous. Ties are broken by someone known as the "Team Mother," who is appointed by the co-founders and responsible for protecting the company's culture.
The elected team leaders join the executive committee but do not get raises unless they hold the title for several quarters in a row. Senior leaders and a VP of engineering, a position that was added more recently, are initially voted on but then hold the job unless the team forces a vote of no confidence. "In other words," Atkinson wrote in the column, "I could be voted out of the position." Atkinson told the Post that a senior leader has once been voted down; he said the person remains at the company.
Atkinson says he's seen employees have more appreciation for the challenges of being a manager after serving in the role—and therefore treat each other with more respect and empathy. There are also less politics, bureaucracy and fear, he wrote. And the process has brought forward people he would have never thought would be good managers, and shown them to be powerful leaders.
"There have been some horrible elections, where I’ve said 'I would have never picked that person'—they either don't have the competency or I don’t want to distract them," Atkinson told the Post. "Sometimes I’ve been right, and sometimes I’ve been wrong and the person turned out to be phenomenal."
If anything, Atkinson says, teams may be better positioned to pick their bosses than anyone else in the organization is, because they've already worked together closely. "If we go out and hire project managers and put them on top of these teams, our odds of getting that right are lower than the team getting it right," he said.
That's not to say the approach isn't without its headaches. When someone who isn't fit to be a manager gets elected, productivity can suffer for a few months. But those who don't work out tend to get replaced pretty quickly.
Atkinson's approach to voting has morphed over the years. In the early days, everyone voted on everything—helping to choose things like the software roadmap by literally placing poker chips on a table. "It was great from the standpoint of the team feeling highly participatory," he said, "but it was horrible for making an agile organization."
More recently, SumAll struggled when projects that had to be coordinated across multiple teams suffered from being too insulated and having leadership changes. So he added a vice president of engineering, charged with managing the individual teams. That person was elected into the role, but won't be voted on quarterly.
Atkinson does think the concept of voting for bosses can work in larger companies, but he's pragmatic about its challenges. Quarterly votes would be too disruptive in a large organization, he said, and there would need to be more layers of management like his engineering chief who can act as consistent go-betweens.
At a time when many startups are trying to distinguish themselves by adding lush perks by the barrel, Atkinson thinks focusing on more innovative ways of managing will make his company more attractive.
"Unfortunately, in our world, some of those things become table stakes," he says of the arms race to add cushy perks. "Spending time managing complaints in your company correctly, versus spending time trying to get the foosball table or the vending machine right, will create a much bigger draw to the organization."