Michael's research seeks to deepen our understanding of the dynamics and consequences of less-hierarchical organizing. Much of his research explores less-hierarchical organizing at its extremes by studying organizations that eliminate hierarchical authority altogether, which he labels self-managing organizations. Because this phenomenon is under-theorized, he employs an inductive qualitative approach to explore the internal dynamics of such systems and build testable theories. However, Michael also draws on quantitative methods, including field experiments, survey methods, and computer simulations, to assess the consequences of such structures.

A core insight of Michael's research on self-managing organizations is that formal role structures can enable organizational control while reinforcing decentralization of authority. This insight introduces a novel mechanism for expanding the trade-off frontier between control and autonomy and challenges prevailing notions of organizational structure that flatter hierarchies imply structurelessness. A second related research stream expands on this insight, exploring how formal structures can enable positive change in teams and organizations.


Featured Research

Job Market Paper

Empowering Bureaucracy: Fostering Non-Hierarchical Control and Employee Autonomy Through Dynamic Formalized Roles

As organizations move from more hierarchical to less hierarchical authority structures, they also tend to reduce formalization of work roles. Sometimes called “organic” designs – these structures enable high degrees of employee autonomy at the expense of organizational control. This paper, a qualitative case study, presents and analyzes an alternative to the organic structure.  Specifically, the organization I studied adopted a radically decentralized authority structure along with a set of participatory formalizing practices that led to a substantial increase in role formalization. Prior theory would view such an organizational configuration as a logical contradiction, with the benefits of decentralization neutralized by the increase in formalization. In contrast, I propose that the newly formalized roles, which were also frequently revised as work contingencies arose, were used by employees in day-to-day work to support both organizational control and employee autonomy. This study illuminates dynamic role structures as a novel mechanism for expanding the trade-off frontier between control and autonomy and suggests that flatter hierarchies do not necessarily imply structurelessness.

Under 3rd Round Review at AMJ

Fostering Positive Relational Dynamics in Teams: The Power of Interaction Scripts, Embedded in Spaces, as a Resource for Change

Despite well-accepted understanding that relational dynamics characterized by respect, openness and connectedness are critical for healthy team functioning, we know little about how to foster such dynamics. Drawing on observation and interview data from an intervention that fostered positive change in the relational dynamics of a global distributed team, this paper theorizes the mechanisms that enabled a move toward positive relational dynamics. We found that the intervention brought about relational changes by not only creating spaces where the team could experiment with new forms of interaction, but also by utilizing interaction scripts – concrete guides for interaction that specify content parameters and participation rules. We find that interaction scripts embedded in spaces were critical for helping the team enact counter-normative forms of interpersonal sharing that led to the emergence of positive relational dynamics. While existing research has highlighted the importance of spaces for enabling positive relational change, this paper theorizes the complementary role that interaction scripts can play in the change process. These findings have implications for research on positive relationships at work, organizational change, and global and geographically dispersed teams.

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Self-Managing Organizations - Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing (Research in Organizational Behavior, 2017)

Fascination with organizations that eschew the conventional managerial hierarchy and instead radically decentralize authority has been longstanding, albeit at the margins of scholarly and practitioner attention. Recently, however, organizational experiments in radical decentralization have gained mainstream consideration, giving rise to a need for new theory and new research. This paper reviews the literature on less-hierarchical organizing and identifies three categories of research: post-bureaucratic organizations, humanistic management and organizational democracy. Despite this extensive prior work, scholarly understanding of radical decentralization remains limited. Using the term self-managing organizations to capture efforts that radically decentralize authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization, we set forth a research agenda to better understand less-hierarchical organizing at its limits.

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Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims - and Actual Promise - of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams (Harvard Business Review, 2016)

Holacracy and other forms of self-organization have been getting a lot of press. Proponents hail them as "flat" environments that foster flexibility, engagement, productivity, and efficiency. Critics say they're naive, unrealistic experiments. We argue, using evidence from a multi-year research agenda at several mainstream organizations that have adopted these forms, that neither view is quite right. Although the new forms (built upon on a half-century of research on and experience with self-managed teams) can help organizations become more adaptable and nimble, most companies shouldn't adopt their principles wholesale. A piecemeal approach usually makes sense. Organizations can use elements of self-management in areas where the need for adaptability is high, and traditional models where reliability is paramount.


Batillana, Julie B.*, Fuerstein, Michael* & Lee, Michael Y.* New Prospects for Organizational Democracy?: How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs. (2018). In Rangan, Subramanian (Ed), Capitalism Beyond Mutuality. Oxford University Press.

Lee, Michael Y. & Edmondson, Amy. (2017). Self-Managing Organizations: Exploring the limits of less hierarchical organizing. Research in Organizational Behavior. 37: 35-58.

Bernstein, Ethan*, Bunch, John*, Canner, Niko* & Lee, Michael Y.* (2016). Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims— and Actual Promise—of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams. Harvard Business Review. 94(7-8, Big Idea Feature): 38-49.

* Denotes equal co-authorship

Working Papers

Lee, Michael Y., Mazmanian, Melissa & Perlow, Leslie A. Fostering Positive Relational Team Dynamics: The power of interaction scripts, embedded in spaces, as a resource for change. (Under 3rd round review, Academy of Management Journal)

Lee, Michael Y. Empowering Bureaucracy: Achieving non-hierarchical control and employee autonomy through dynamic formalized roles. (Job market paper; Preparing for submission)