Self-management: how to create a self-managed culture

Myrjam Gerritsen

Growth requires change. For most of us, the fresh start of a new year brings with it eagerness to learn new ways of doing things, to change bad habits, and achieve greater successes. Yet fast forward a couple of months, and often those much-desired changes have gained little (if any) ground. The same applies within organizations, particularly when it comes to making the change from the shackles of hierarchical management to a culture of self-management and autonomy.

Self-management: how to create a self-managed culture

In one of my previous articles, I shared my initial experiences of working within a self-managing organization. I received lot of intrigue both online and offline about how to effectively implement self-management. In this article, I outline the steps you should consider to make the transition to self-management in the workplace work.  

Setting up a self-managed organization isn’t as simple as removing all management layers and expecting teams to be able to figure it out themselves. You’ll have years of learned helplessness (seeking direction, permission and approval). It would be a tall order to suddenly ask your people to become fully self-directed and proactive, to know when to lead and when to follow, to feel confident with decision making in the absence of managers and to be fully aligned with your organizational purpose.

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Self-management requires a well-thought out and carefully planned strategic framework. You’ll need to ensure open communication and feedback at the right moment of the employee experience. This is particularly necessary during onboarding for new hires, and team development as well as for dealing with specific themes, such as the during and after the process of transition to self-management.

It should be founded on the right intention. If you’re looking for ways to save costs, stripping away management layers and reducing head counts is not the place to start. Self-management is more likely to gain traction when the goal is to add value for the customer, improve employee engagement and increase agility and innovation across the organization.

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There are four steps to consider when transforming your organization to a self-managed one: 

1. Personal leadership 

Self-management is more likely to appeal to individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of intrinsic motivation. As you begin the transition to self-management, be prepared for resistance and resignation from those employees who prefer to work under close direction from management. Personal leadership starts with the enthusiasm for getting out of bed to reach one’s purpose in life; and self-managing is about the ability to take initiative and be accountable for the added value you have in line with the organization’s purpose.

Your onboarding and team building processes are essential in this process too. Self-managing employees need clearly defined boundaries. What decisions can they make on their own? How will they keep track of alignment and direction?

Employees who have higher levels of personal leadership will find it easier to adapt to self-management, but your recruitment team will also need to look for such qualities in new hires to fit the new culture. Competencies such as learning agility, communication and decision-making skills, experience in time management and goal setting, confidence with giving and receiving feedback, being highly collaborative and yet self-sufficient are vital in a self-managed organization. 

2. Organizational culture and core values 

A new culture will begin to take shape but trying to fix it on paper will also be contradictory. However, you’ll need to work with your people to create an open work atmosphere founded on trust and independence. Self-management will on thrive when leaders trust in the contribution, knowledge and abilities of their people. Employees will also have to think of ways to make their colleagues feel appreciated.

Self-management requires a strong culture of accountability and responsibility. Structures should be limited to providing clear objectives and frequent reporting (whether in team stand ups or more formally), in which employees can measure their progress against clearly defined metrics with their peers.

3. Processes and structure of the organization 

All your ICT processes and ways of working will need to be reviewed. Will your current processes work in the new culture? Is your organization equipped to follow agile work models? Avoid implementing new processes because it’s fashionable; do so because it adds the most value for your customer.

4. Feedback 

A feedback culture should be at the core, not only during the process of change, but also as a tool for measuring and improving performance in the absence of managerial layers. This is crucial if you work together in self-directed teams. Managers won’t be barking orders, or giving reviews, or directing tasks. Giving and receiving feedback is and remains complicated. Your employees will grow faster and with more direction if their work contribution, ability to collaborate and add value is measured and guided by their colleagues. 

If you want to make the daring switch to self-management, you’ll need collaboration from the entire organization. Together, you’ll have to think about the implications for customers, suppliers, teams, processes, systems, IT requirements and so forth. Using the traditional top-down method in this case would be entirely contradictory. Keep in mind though that self-management may not be suitable for some teams and they will need to be guided through the process. 

As a coach, I spend a great of deal my time on this subject. Many people find it difficult to give others constructive feedback. They are afraid it will harm relationships with their colleagues. But with the right feedback system in place, you can enable your people to grow and improve their performance and at the same time strengthen team dynamics and work relationships. I provide a safe and secure base for the teams and individuals, but it is still important to deliver clear and consistent messages that align with the organizational purpose using concrete words. I call it being soft on the relationship and hard on the content.

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