June 28, 2023
The world is now beginning to notice the benefits of self-management. Social media is talking about it; there are already many books published, many articles coming out; and, the founders and board members of companies are reaching out to consultants for support.
Irrespective of different intentions that people might have for embracing self-management, some of the benefits of making this shift are quite lucrative. Take the possibility of enhanced trust and psychological ownership among employees for instance. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that?
One of the primary challenges associated with this transition is: it requires people at the top to let go of their control and to give power where it belongs- to the people.
In my work with clients in India, I have come across a fairly common pattern. I have found that even when the founders of the companies wanted to make transition to self-management, they themselves had blindspots that were blocking this transition.
That’s what I wish to talk about in this article.
How to know when you are the block yourself?
I found it happening in multiple cases. The founders wanted things to be done their way, and the team members were thrown into situations where they had to seek guidance over and over. Conformity and founder worship had become a norm.
Even more damaging were the situations where the founders declared “I trust you, do it your way”, and then when people came back with the work, they didn't like it and changed it all.
In many cases, I observed that team members had stopped considering the possibility of critically examining the founders’ work. The founders, on the other hand, had also maintained an image to look like all-knowing individuals, while at the same time living in the illusion that they have created a culture where people are free to question or challenge them.
I noticed it happening a lot in manufacturing organisations. Whenever the founders were on site, things would change, people would start behaving differently, the quality parameters, the safety standards were adhered to.
This happened because the people, sometimes including the top leaders, were not involved in the process of visioning. I remember being part of meetings where the founders giving discourses on future visions felt more like sermons.
This was quite obvious in many meetings. But, interestingly, it was still a blindspot for these founders. They couldn’t see that. Moreover, most of these meetings were ‘updates’ meetings, rather than co-working ones.
I found many of these founders were not willing to let go of this power.
There are two issues with this approach. Even when the founders took the interviews just to know the applicants and not influence the final decision, it did end up influencing the decision because of the above mentioned work environment.
Second, as the founders were good in sharing the future vision, new entrants developed this expectation to see some of it happening on the ground (which they mostly couldn’t find later).
In a lot of meetings of the team members, I became tired of hearing ‘This is what sir has asked us to do, so I think I will collect this data to prepare a slide on this’.
In many cases, not just the end goal, but the process was also dictated by the founders. Consider this: ‘sir has asked me to collect this data from the admin, so I will just go and get it’.
Many of these founders believed in the idea of floating business plan competitions within the organisations to get ideas out of their people. Yes, there is nothing wrong with this approach, but doing so may end up reducing the possibility for people to build upon each others’ ideas and nurture the environment of collaboration.
What to do about it?
Giving up power is not easy. Making yourself comfortable with others’ ways of doing things is not easy. It requires inner work and relational work. We all hold beliefs and traumas that get in our way. I have found that it is essential to look within first, identify the resistance arising, handle it gently and not push yourself too much.
What if you have people who are afraid to lead on their own? What if this is somehow connected to their history or their upbringing? You don’t need to be a trained therapist, but it certainly makes sense to be trauma-informed so that you can navigate the space skillfully and inspire.
For more support, do explore Greaterthan’s Trauma-informed collaboration course.
Transitions don’t happen in a day. They take time. More than the final outcome, the process matters. It makes perfect sense to start small, from a low risk threshold to higher, if possible as per the context. For example, you can start with inspiring your people to self-manage their own paid/unpaid leaves.
While you start taking small steps outwardly, you will also need to do some inner work in parallel. When you inspire your people to try self-management, you will also need to inspire yourself to let go of the knowing. Simpy cultivate the trust that what you need to know shall flow to you.
Moreover, install systems and inspire people to embrace data transparency as-well-as accessibility at organisational level. This way everyone shall become more accountable socially. Doing this may also require you to train your people to enhance their capacity to understand and interpret data or information.
There is a flip side to subjectivity. When organisational processes impact us at a personal level, we might become biassed in our evaluation of those processes. This is where a coach or consultant can help us. Allow them to come close enough so that they can observe without getting entangled themselves. And yes, allow them time to do their magic. The work of human or organisational transformation takes time; it makes no sense to try to ‘fix’ people or cultures in just a few sessions.
It is not sometimes enough to simply invite or inspire your people to self-manage. They may also need relevant processes and structures to make the leap themselves. In most traditional organisations, on the name of inclusion, there are practices such as Brainstorming or Open Discussion. But they are neither sufficient to inspire effective participation from everyone, nor skillful enough to harvest the wisdom of the masses in a time bound manner.
You can choose to take inspiration from Liberating Structures, and invite your people to make them a part of their daily reality. Greaterthan also offers Liberating Structure Studio to support its clients.
Where there are power differentials and conformity, there emerges politics and negativity. While you walk on this gradual path to self-management, it becomes essential to confront any negativity or politics that exists in your workspace.
But, how do you really do that? It heavily depends on the context. Sometimes talking directly about it in groups or in one-to-one settings may help, while sometimes simply ignoring or letting it go may also be skillful. And then there are many other options in-between these two extremes.
Whatever the context you have, it makes a lot of sense to consider confronting these two energy-drainers head-on.
How to know that you are able to do it?
This is the best indicator. Notice what happens when you are on vacation. If your mind is not anxious and if your phone is not ringing too much, your people are on their path to self-management.
Now you are not micromanaging. You don’t also need to reinforce organisational purpose or vision all the time. You can simply choose to do your best creative work without getting entangled in housekeeping.
When people are driven from within, they don’t complain about the challenges. Rather they own them, just the way they own their self-set goals and their accomplishments. They collectively experience the joy in failing and picking themselves up again.
A self-managing environment naturally inspires people to learn from each other. And if some skills are not present within the org, people do not shy away from inviting experts from the outside.
Joyful workspaces are infectious- they set a perfect stage for the inner transformation, even for the ones who hold suspicion or negativity.
However, in some cases, a few people may start struggling even more. If that happens, they are probably not a right fit for the self-managing culture, or they have a different journey to go through. It is okay if they ultimately choose to change their roles or quit the job.
No one can be perfect or all-knowing. Not even the founders. In self-managing cultures, team members are not afraid to confront their founders or board members if they disagree with them. The power lies with the people for the roles they have chosen to play.
Consider giving a surprise visit to your people working on-site. Their first reactions will tell you everything. If their expressions do not become panicking, shocked or nervous, if they greet you joyfully and go back to their work smoothly, they don’t have anything to hide and you are in a self-managing environment.
It is also about developing the capacity to sense the energy of the room. Is there easiness there with your presence, or are people restless, anxious from within? This may also show in the body language. Identify a few signals that work for you in your context.
This is the ultimate test. If you feel, not much work is coming your way or you are not invited to many meetings, it is good news. Your job then is to simply continue to hold the container. This may also be the time for you to consider starting a new venture, or simply moving on to your next favourite hobby in life. You are home :)
About the Author
Ashish Arora (Linkedin)
Ashish supports people to follow their hearts and organisations to create transformative cultures.
Most of his work has emerged in the Personal, Systemic and Organisational Transformation space. He organises a) retreats for youth to understand their hearts’ calling, b) facilitates workshops for people to collectively explore the limitations and possibilities of transformation of our mainstream socio-economic systems, and c) works with organisations to transform their culture and processes in alignment with the Teal paradigm.
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