4 Misperceptions About Self-Management

Self-ManagementI’m starting to open my eyes to new models for organizations. In my work as a consultant to businesses, it’s clear that each time we solve a problem of people working together, we create others in its wake. Corporations are getting ever more complicated. One thing I keep reading and asking about is this: Is self-management a viable option for business?

We know more about what motivates people to work than ever before in the history of organizations. Yet we continue to fall into the traps of ineffective incentive and empowerment programs. What if we stepped back and took a good look at the hierarchical structures that form most businesses, and think outside the pyramid? What if we explored self-managing systems? What would that do for the wide-spread disengagement that plagues most managers?

According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, for the vast majority of work in the 21st century, self-management and related intrinsic incentives are far more crucial than outdated notions of hierarchical management and over-reliance on monetary compensation as reward.

According to Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Nelson Parker, 2014), self-management isn’t some new consultant fad; it’s been around for a long time and has already been successfully practiced by a few pioneering businesses. He says:

It is the way life has operated in the world for billions of years, bringing forth creatures and ecosystems so magnificent and complex we can hardly comprehend them. Self-organization is the life force of the world, thriving on the edge of chaos with just enough order to funnel its energy, but not so much as to slow down adaptation and learning.

In other words, if nature is self-organizing, why can’t humans also use natural self-organizing principles for people working together? Are we ready to move beyond rigid structures and processes and let people find their own solutions?

We may be on to something new and dramatically effective for the future of work. Yet many people frequently misunderstand what self-management is about and what it takes to make it work. Here are a few misperceptions about self-management as a business organizational model.

  1. Misperception #1: There is no structure, no management, no leadership. Self-managing organizations do not replace the pyramid with democratically led consensus. There is instead of the pyramid an interlocking set of structures, processes and practices. These are clearly defined and inform how teams get set, how decisions are made, how roles are defined and distributed, how salaries are set, how people are hired and fired, and so on. All of the management tasks become the responsibility of the team and the people carrying out tasks. Management and leadership is carried out by the workers and members of the team.
  2. Misperception #2: Everyone is equal. With self-organizing teams, the problems created by unequal distribution of power are circumvented. People can hold different levels of power and yet everyone can be powerful. It’s not a zero-sum game. The question is not how can everyone have equal power? – but it is rather: how can everyone be powerful? Instead of hierarchies of power and position, there are natural hierarchies of influence.
  3. Misperception #3: It’s about empowerment. There is irony in “empowering people.” You can only empower people when there is a hierarchy with unequal distribution of power. In self-managing organizations, people have it AND they have freedom and the responsibility that goes along with it. All people are responsible for achieving the purpose of the organization.
  4. Misperception #4: It’s still experimental. Managers and leaders think of self-management as rare, but it’s actually been proven in both small and large scale companies, in just about every field, in both profit and non-profits. There are today several models for self-managing organizations, depending on the specifics of the business. Gore-Tex has been using self-organizing principles since its founding in the 1950s, as does Whole Foods, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia and Linux.

What are your thoughts? Could you ever imagine working in a self-managing organization? Let’s talk. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.


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