As a performance coach in an organization that recently ditched managerial hierarchies, I have the privilege of seeing and experiencing the benefits and challenges of self-management firsthand – across all levels and various roles. As more organizations strip away the constraints and limitations of too much structure, leaders need to be aware that listening to their people at every juncture is no longer an optional extra, but an essential part of employee engagement. Without it, self-management will fail.
Self-management hasn’t reinvented HR
Self-management, self-steering and self-directed teams are not new terms – they originated during the 80s. Dutch Professor of Business Administration, Ulbo De Sitter first explored these concepts as part of his approach called ‘sociotechnics’. Nowadays, we call it social innovation.
The likes of Spotify and Netflix claim to have reinvented HR and employee engagement by removing hierarchy. But if you zoom in, I don’t think self-management is all that innovative. It simply gives life to our desire to have freedom in determining our daily tasks without the any side steering of a manager who tells us how and when to do them.
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Autonomy requires a feedback culture
Self-managing organizations encourage and prioritize an autonomous culture, which sounds easy enough, but in practice chaos ensues if the right groundwork isn’t done at the outset. You must determine: How is autonomy defined in your organization? Where does it begin and end? Is it appropriate across all teams or only in some? The same applies to measuring the effectiveness of making such a bold change: it’s impossible to continuously improve the process without listening to what your people need to be optimally productive in the new culture.
Without a guiding framework and clear channels for feedback, it’s easy to simply go off giving your people the freedom to do things the way they like to do them. In turn, the risk of assumptions arises. Your people may find themselves making well-intended but misdirected decisions about the added value for a prospective customer, an existing one or the internal organization.
If you’re going to remove managers, you’ll need to ask your people the right questions at the right time and listen to their ideas and feedback to be sure everyone is on the same page. Creating a feedback culture enables your people to share their insights and experiences on topics relevant at an organizational level, or for colleagues to measure each other’s performance in a structured and fair way.
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Self-management requires frameworks
In my role as coach, I facilitate development and direction for fully self-directed teams. What strikes me is that these teams need supportive frameworks to a greater extent than those in highly structured organizations. New employees need guidance to gain the knowledge, clarity and confidence needed to undertake self-directed work.
I think the most significant question at an individual level is: How do you take responsibility and give direction to your work without anyone telling you what to do? I first look at the situation in a team setting from a distance. I consider how the team responds to an individual’s role and whether they offer the support needed for that person to achieve their goals. I also look at team dynamics. Are they engaged and connected? Do they work seamlessly together?
What I find difficult in the self-managing context is determining when to let go so that the team can work it out for themselves versus when to facilitate and offer guidance. It is so easy to make suggestions and contribute to decisions – and sometimes it is necessary that I do an intervention – but self-management requires quite the opposite. A coach’s role is stimulate decision making based on the team’s intrinsic motivation, not based on my suggestions. I look for balance so that I don’t coach too much or too little. And then: How do I shape my own self-management? What are the goals and frameworks that inform my own tasks?
All of these questions cannot be answered without involving the very people who are empowered to work autonomously. Even coaches require feedback to ensure we are on the right track. As part of one such an organization that is thriving, I’m on a beautiful new adventure myself!
I think it is important that each individual and/or team needs to establish goals and direction in a way that is aligned to the organization’s purpose. Role clarity is also essential and helps facilitate constructive feedback. And I don’t mean job descriptions – role clarity goes beyond what’s on paper and ensures that the expectations for each role are accepted and understood both by the individual and by the other team members. Trust is another essential ingredient, (and one that stems from role clarity) because team members can be more accountable, more confident at decision-making and more focused in their tasks when they are free from ambiguity and uncertainty.
Feedback can be measured
These are all aspects of HR that can be measured – which is why employees need the right channels to give their feedback. One way to measure progress is to benchmark it with data collected from periodic surveys. Self-managing organizations need to be able to listen to their people, not least because they are the ones who are responsible for achieving your goals.