Self-Management in the Workplace | Everything You Need to Know
Self-management in the workplace is not just an emerging trend or new HR fad; self-management is a way of working that has been revolutionising businesses for decades.
If you’re currently exploring self-management or wondering if this way of working might be the future for how your organisation or team works together, I’ve shared everything you need to know to understand more about the concept, and practical implementation of self-management.
As a company culture coach, I’ve supported a number of organisations go fully self-managed, or adopt influences in order to improve their way of working. Below I’ve shared from my experiences to help you understand what self-management looks like and if this is a journey that could help you and your team.
What is self-management in the workplace?
At its most basic level, self-management is where teams operate without the need for managers or traditional hierarchical supervision.
Through self-management, employees take responsibility for their tasks, decisions, and outcomes. They decide what work needs to be done, and how to deliver the best result.
The practice goes well beyond just the simple delegation of tasks. Self-management fosters a culture that gives employees the choice to manage their own workload, set goals, and make decisions.
Although self-management infers an individualistic approach to work, self-management is actually about a team approach to work. The team ‘self-manage’ – they do everything that a typical manager would do.
In order to give this level of autonomy to teams, it’s important that they hold each other accountable, and support each other on the development of their talents and capabilities.
Initially, this style of democratic management can appear like chaos. Especially when we’re so used to teams requesting permission or being watched over by managers. But as I’ll explain later on around our history of traditional management, our default approach can lead to a severe lack of engagement, and a business that is pain achingly slow at adaptation.
Pre-requisites of self-management
An easy assumption around self-management is that to implement it, you remove all managers. However, it is not a matter of relinquishing control and hoping for the best. There have been many failed attempts at self-management because of this misguided interpretation.
Evolving to self-management requires preparation, the right mindset, and certain fundamental elements. To effectively establish self-managed teams here are the prerequisites you should have in place:
Purpose for the journey
Self-management should not be a goal within itself. Self-management is a way of working that will enable your business and teams to reach a particular goal. Therefore, it’s important that you don’t choose self-management just because it seems like a trendy new approach.
You have to consider what you hope to achieve by working this way, and why you want to work this way in the first place?
Strong organisational values
Co-creating strong organisational values works in two ways to adopt self-management.
Firstly, values or principles highlight whether self-management will help you live these more practically. For example, you might have the value of innovation. You can then ask; will self-management enable us to be more innovative?
But secondly, during a self-management journey values help provide a compass to develop your processes such as the way you make decisions. Values are vital to guide teams in the absence of hierarchical directives.
Leaders willing to make space
Another assumption of self-management is that it’s leaderless. But the reality is, it’s leaderful. People naturally take on different types of leadership styles and move in and out of leadership roles depending on who is best suited to that project. Leadership is more emergent.
To adapt to self-management, existing managers and leaders must step back to give the team space to step in.
If you have leaders who are unwilling to share power, or give power to the teams, self-management will never take root.
Trust and psychological safety
In an environment where hierarchy is reduced and autonomy is elevated, team members need the assurance that they can voice opinions, ask questions, and even make mistakes without facing retribution.
Self-management is built on the foundations of trust. Teams must trust each other and be able to talk about the challenges that emerge. Psychological safety also needs to be high to ensure that when mistakes are made there is no blame game, and that open dialogue can be established where people support each other.
In a traditional workplace environment, we have a tendency to parent people. Either we become a critical parent, or the caring parent. In turn, employees then become either the rebellious child, or the compliant child, passive and submissive. This doesn’t allow people to step into their own leadership and self-manage.
Instead, everyone needs to adopt the adult-to-adult mindset.
Derived from Transactional Analysis, adult-to-adult, represents a communication style where individuals interact as equals, basing conversations on facts, mutual respect, and shared responsibility. In self-managing teams, this mindset is paramount. It ensures that team members approach challenges and decision-making collaboratively, without the constraints of parental authority or submissive compliance.
Having a team coach isn’t a ‘must have’ to start your self-management journey, but it can alleviate much of the tensions that can occur and provide a sounding board for guidance and mentorship.
Some companies decide to have an external coach in the beginning as this ensures a neutral third-party can help teams to navigate tensions. The coach holds space for the team to be able to work through these challenges more productively.
Eventually a person within a team will take on the role of team coach, or in some companies the role of team coach is rotated.
Why is self-management important in an organisation?
Self-management alone isn’t important. I think that sometimes companies can get too fixated on the model and forget about the principles and approach that it’s trying to promote. At its core, what we’re trying to achieve is just like any other business. A great place to work, where people can contribute in a meaningful way, and to create a business that serves its customers.
Unfortunately, in many of the traditional ways we work, people are restricted in their ability to contribute, and companies spend a huge amount of time and resources managing internal politics and power struggles, rather than putting that effort into serving and giving value to the customer. Nothing tells me more that a company culture isn’t functioning, when I hear that customer service ratings are at an all-time low.
The true importance of self-management is its capacity to help manage the work of teams and deliver value to customers. No longer are organisations putting so much energy into managing people who are all adults.
There are numerous arguments that can be made for going down a self-managed approach. But I’ll leave you with a final one. And that’s the fact that the world is so much more complex and challenging. Businesses that operate in such a rigid way struggle to adapt when external pressures change the landscape that they were working in. Which means most businesses now require a new model that can be more agile to the unexpected futures we face.
It would be easy for me to argue that every organisation should adopt self-management in the workplace – the arguments seem obvious to me. Even more so when you read the benefits of this way of working below.
But while self-management has been adopted by banks, charities, manufacturing companies, engineering firms, healthcare organisations, schools and local government; the truth is that self-management isn’t a one-size fits all model.
You may find that your team isn’t ready for such levels of accountability, or that the business isn’t in a position to experience change right now. What I would advise is that you don’t use these excuses to temper your journey. Instead, doing micro experiments as I’ve covered below can help you to understand the appetite your teams have for greater autonomy, and get a sense of organisational readiness.
What are the benefits of self-management in the workplace?
As a culture coach who specialises in self-management, I’ve seen first-hand how implementing a self-management model can seem daunting. But when we have the courage to give it a try, teams and the business take on a new lease of life that brings about greater performance and fulfilment. It can be a game-changer for many organisations.
Here are some of the benefits of self-management that thrive with this alternative approach to work.
Self-management gives people a sense of ownership and autonomy over their work. This dramatically increases their engagement and motivation. They are no longer executing tasks which they’ve had no say in; they are integral parts of the decision-making process, adding value and driving the company’s success. People feel that they have some choice in how and when they work, which of course is going to make them feel far more empowered.
Too often in traditional hierarchical structures, people are restricted and unable to contribute, let alone bring ideas to life, which could help drive value to the customer. Self-management allows more voices to be heard, and naturally creates more cross-team collaboration – which means people at all levels of the organisation can propose new ideas and solutions.
As people are no longer competing with the politics of a hierarchy or the power struggles, their energy is instead turned towards continuous improvement.
The flexibility of self-management, alongside the decentralisation of decision-making, means that organisations can respond faster to changes internally, but also from external challenges. People no longer have to follow a strict chain of command, making the company more agile and adaptable. Since covid-19 there have been some remarkable examples of how self-managed organisations were able to better adapt to the pandemic than more traditional companies.
Personal growth and development
Self-management requires that people are constantly learning and developing. The environment it creates means that this is a natural byproduct. People have to navigate through their roles, make decisions, learn from mistakes and develop leadership skills. Long gone are the days where personal development was kept to a management manual. Self-management is a space where adaptability and resilience are constantly being tested.
How do you implement self-management in the workplace?
Self-management is not something that you can just implement; as if you’re deleting one operating system and downloading another. If you take this approach, you not only don’t understand the very mindset and beliefs that come with self-management, but you’re also going to find a whole heap of problems.
Self-management, in and of itself, is not a quick fix, a new fad, or something that will solve all your problems. It may even create some if you’re not already aware of what is fundamentally going on within your company culture.
Like any evolution, it’s not a goal to just change, the change has to bring about a desired outcome. There must be a bigger purpose as to why you need to change things in the first place.
I often use the metaphor of a high-performing athlete. There are many training regimes you might take to become a high-performance athlete, but you have to first understand what goal you want to achieve. Because the training regime for an Olympic swimmer, will be totally different to that of a world class tennis player. Both are athletes, both have different ways of working towards their goals.
If you treat self-management like the latest management trend, you won’t see the results, your team will be disenfranchised by yet another failed change programme, and you’ll soon find another system or methodology that feels cool.
A joke I have with my self-management peers, is that we don’t call it self-management. Because sometimes even the word ‘self-management’ can bring about all kinds of aversions and reactions.
Instead, I really like the way Frederic Laloux (Reinventing Organisations) frames it. Instead of calling it self-management, it’s about asking our teams some core questions;
What’s our appetite to have more autonomy?
How would we like to be as a team?
Questions to consider before choosing self-management?
As I mentioned above, before you even begin holding discussions with your team, it’s vital to deeply connect to the purpose of why you want to adopt self-management in your organisation.
This cannot be a vanity project. Self-management is tough, and there will be times where you want to walk away and revert to the old way of doing things, just because it feels familiar and easy. Getting to the core of WHY you’re doing this in the first place, will help keep your integrity when the going gets tough.
Ask yourself these questions before you begin the journey.
What makes you want to reinvent how you work together?
What do you think self-management will ‘solve’?
Where do you want to be when you’re ‘done’?
How does self-management work in practice?
As you dive deeper into organisations who have adopted self-management, you’ll discover that not every company does it in the same way. As I mentioned before, I can’t make it clearer that teams have to find what works for them. This cannot be a prescriptive rule book, because every business and all the people in that business are different.
However, there are some commonalities that these companies have which will give you an insight into the practices which make self-management a working reality.
People are given the opportunity to make decisions regarding their work. There are a number of different processes and frameworks that can be used to help people make ‘good’ and ‘safe’ decisions without the need for decisions to have to go to a leader. Decisions at a team level are often done around tasks, problem-solving or new processes.
Strategic business goals may be left to directors or leaders, but very often these are done in consultation with teams. At a team level, each team sets their goals in line with the organisation’s objectives. These are not top-down instructions coming from a manager, but rather co-created targets agreed upon by the team. Even performance evaluation is mutual, involving self-assessment and peer reviews.
Roles & responsibilities
In a self-managed environment, clarity of roles is crucial. Each person has a clear understanding of their role, which responsibilities sit within this role, and how it contributes to the overall goals of the organisation.
Meetings are a vital part of communication for self-managed teams. Meetings hold a significant impact on decision-making, as well as gaining real contribution. Again, there are many meeting formats that self-managed organisations may take depending on the type of meeting they are holding. This differs hugely from traditional meetings whereby one person dominates the conversation, or people are just passengers who feel they have to be present to please a manager.
Different Types of Self-management frameworks
The beauty of self-management is that it’s not new. Many workplaces around the world have been operating this way for decades. Which means there are hundreds of tools, methods and frameworks that have all been tried and tested. It’s ultimately, about finding what works best for your company.
As a culture coach who is qualified and experienced in numerous self-management frameworks, I don’t believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Each company is different, has different people, and unique challenges. Therefore, from my own experience, I’ve never seen a company adopt a full framework believing it’s going to give them all the answers.
Whenever I work with my clients, I always recommend taking a very holistic approach. Finding methods or ideas from a variety of sources and making it their own. You’ll also hear this a lot from many organisations who are already self-managing. Few have adopted one framework and stuck to it. They pick and mix, finding what works best for their teams.
I’ve also found that the more dogmatic we are about an approach, the more it just sounds like the old ways of working, but in new clothes. No matter how much you label something as ‘progressive’, the same controlling and process-driven mindset is still lurking behind it.
Here are just some of the frameworks that can help you along the way.
Holacracy is a self-management system conceived by Brian Robertson. Back in the early 2000s Brian Robertson and Tom Thomison embarked on an exploration to find a better way to run organisations. At the time, both were involved with Ternary Software, a company where many of the initial ideas behind Holacracy were experimented with and refined. The overarching goal was to address common organisational challenges such as bureaucracy, inefficiency, and lack of agility.
By 2007, having tested and evolved the system at Ternary Software, Robertson co-founded HolacracyOne to further develop and spread the methodology. Holacracy was formally introduced as an integrated system with its own constitution, which detailed its practices and principles. This constitution acts as the “rule book” for organisations adopting Holacracy, ensuring that the methodology is consistently applied.
Holacracy seeks to distribute authority, empowering every member of an organisation rather than concentrating decision-making power at the top. The model reimagines roles, not as fixed job titles, but as evolving sets of accountabilities and responsibilities. This fluidity ensures that the organisation can adapt swiftly to changing circumstances, and individuals can pivot based on their strengths, passions, and the needs of the business.
Central to Holacracy is the idea of “circles”, which are autonomous, cross-functional teams responsible for specific areas of work. Each circle operates with its own set of roles, accountabilities, and defined domains, and is empowered to self-organise and make decisions within its purview. Tensions, or gaps between the current state and the potential of the organisation, are processed through structured governance meetings, ensuring that challenges are addressed, and the system continuously evolves. By redistributing authority and focusing on transparent processes, Holacracy strives to create nimble, adaptive organisations where every voice matters.
Over the years, as more organisations began to implement Holacracy, it gained attention and recognition. One of the most notable early adopters was the eCommerce shoe retailer Zappos, led by CEO Tony Hsieh. In 2013, Hsieh announced that Zappos would transition to using Holacracy, which propelled the methodology into the limelight and spurred further interest from businesses around the world.
Despite its growing popularity, Holacracy also faced criticism. Some found it difficult to implement, while others felt it was too rigid with its rules. However, regardless of the critiques, Holacracy has undeniably made its mark on the modern organisational landscape, inspiring businesses to rethink traditional hierarchies and explore new ways of working collaboratively.
As a Holacracy practitioner, I wrote about my thoughts about Holacracy as a framework here. And while there are some practices that I like from Holacracy, I have found that this model can be too restrictive and complicated for teams to adopt.
Sociocracy, often referred to as “dynamic governance”, is a system of governance that places emphasis on consent decision-making and an organisational structure based on interlinked circles. The term ‘sociocracy’ originates from the Latin and Greek words ‘socius’ (companion) and ‘kratein’ (to govern), hence implying governance by peers or colleagues.
The origins of sociocracy can be traced back to the late 19th century when Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, first coined the term. However, it was only in the mid-20th century that the methodology was formally developed by Kees Boeke, a Dutch educator and pacifist. Boeke’s experience in Quaker-inspired schools, where consensus decision-making was the norm, greatly influenced his perspective. He adapted and evolved these principles into a unique governance model which he applied in his school, aiming to achieve a balance between order and freedom.
In the years that followed, Boeke’s ideas were further refined and expanded upon. Gerard Endenburg, a former student of Boeke and an engineer by profession, introduced the circular hierarchy and consent-based decision-making in his electronics company. Recognising the model’s potential, Endenburg then established the Sociocratic Centre in the Netherlands during the 1970s, dedicated to researching, developing, and disseminating Sociocratic practices. This marked the beginning of the global spread of sociocracy, which has since been adopted by numerous organisations across various sectors seeking a more inclusive and effective governance model.
Semco Style consists of a framework and a roadmap to aid organisations in their adoption of self-management and a more democratic management approach. The style gets its name from Semco, a Brazilian manufacturing company, and the radical corporate democratisation experiments led by its CEO, Ricardo Semler.
Semler took over Semco from his father in the 1980s. At the time, the company was traditional in its approach and facing significant challenges. Semler, influenced by his experiences and the socio-political climate in Brazil, began introducing a series of unconventional changes. This included allowing employees to set their salaries, having open financial records, reducing hierarchies, and letting staff choose their leaders. Additionally, workers could set their own hours and even decide their workplace, bringing in a fresh wave of autonomy unheard of in conventional business settings.
The results of these transformative changes were remarkable. Semco not only survived its earlier challenges but thrived, experiencing significant growth rates. Its success became a case study in reimagining workplace structures and dynamics, with businesses worldwide taking note. Ricardo Semler’s book, “Maverick”, published in 1993, offers an in-depth account of this journey, bringing global attention to the Semco Style. Since then, the principles of the Semco Style have been adopted and adapted by many organisations globally, offering an alternative approach to traditional management paradigms.
At the core of Semco Style lies the belief that when given the autonomy and responsibility to shape their workspace, employees tend to become more engaged, satisfied, and, in turn, more productive. It encourages workplaces to shift from rigid, hierarchical structures to more flexible, participatory ones. The Semco Style represents a radical approach to organisational management, advocating for decentralisation of authority, employee freedom, and a company culture rooted in trust.
Examples of self-management in the workplace
There are hundreds of companies who have adopted self-management worldwide. Varying in sectors and industries, as well as countries – which means there’s really no excuse not to investigate how self-management may work for you.
The companies below are some of the most famous poster-companies of how self-management can not only radically improve the workplace experience, but in-hand enhance business success.
Buurtzorg is a pioneering name in the world of community healthcare, particularly in the Netherlands. Founded in 2006 by Jos de Blok and a small team of professional nurses, Buurtzorg sought to revolutionise home care by returning it to its essence: patient-centred and nurse-led services.
Disenchanted with the bureaucracy and inefficiency of conventional home care organisations, the team believed that nurses, being closest to patients, were best suited to decide the nature and sequence of care. Thus, eschewing the traditional hierarchical structure, Buurtzorg adopted a self-management model where teams of nurses operated autonomously, making critical decisions on patient care without layers of managerial oversight.
Each self-managed team at Buurtzorg, typically comprising 10 to 12 nurses, serves a specific neighbourhood. These teams have the autonomy to manage their schedules, divide tasks, interact with patients, and even handle local marketing initiatives. The central office offers support, but not in the conventional top-down directive sense; instead, they provide tools, training, and resources to aid the nurses in their roles. This decentralised approach not only trims administrative costs but also ensures that care is more personalised, holistic, and, importantly, human.
Buurtzorg’s innovative approach proved both efficacious and efficient. Within a decade of its inception, the organisation grew to employ over 10,000 nurses, serving a significant portion of the Dutch population. The model’s success led to multiple accolades, including being touted as a potential blueprint for future community healthcare systems. Beyond the Netherlands, the “Buurtzorg model” has drawn international attention, with healthcare professionals worldwide keen to understand and, where possible, emulate its approach to self-management and patient care.
Haier, one of the world’s leading appliance makers, has undergone a profound transformation since its humble beginnings as a small, failing refrigerator factory in Qingdao, China. Under the visionary leadership of Zhang Ruimin, who took over in the 1980s, Haier embarked on a relentless quest for quality and innovation, which eventually led them to embrace the principles of self-management in the early 2000s. Rather than adhering to traditional hierarchical corporate structures, Zhang was inspired to decentralise the mammoth organisation to allow for greater agility, innovation, and direct response to customer needs.
Central to Haier’s self-management approach is the concept of ‘Rendanheyi’, a model that breaks the vast enterprise into numerous micro-enterprises or small start-up teams. Each of these micro-enterprises operates autonomously, functioning almost like an independent company with its profit and loss statements. Employees are no longer just passive executors of top-down orders. Instead, they become ‘entrepreneurs’, actively identifying customer pain points, developing innovative solutions, and bearing responsibility for their successes or failures. The transformation to this model was not without challenges, but it marked a dramatic shift from the norms of large-scale manufacturing enterprises, driving a culture of continuous innovation and deep customer engagement.
The results of Haier’s bold adoption of self-management have been nothing short of remarkable. The company has not only maintained its dominant position in the home appliances market but has also expanded into new arenas, from tech to health solutions. By 2020, Haier was boasting a multitude of micro-enterprises, each acting on the frontline of market changes and user needs. Zhang Ruimin’s vision, which married the entrepreneurial spirit with the scale of a global enterprise, offers a compelling blueprint for other businesses seeking to remain agile and innovative in a rapidly changing world.
Founded in the 1970s, Morning Star, a leading company in the tomato processing industry, might appear on the surface to be just another agribusiness operating in California’s Central Valley. However, delve a little deeper, and it becomes evident that their organisational structure is anything but conventional. Guided by the visionary leadership of founder Chris Rufer, Morning Star has been at the vanguard of embracing self-management, championing a radical business model where there are no managers, and every employee is entrusted with a high degree of autonomy and responsibility.
At the heart of Morning Star’s self-management philosophy is the ‘Colleague Letter of Understanding’ (CLOU). Each year, every employee negotiates a CLOU with their peers, delineating their roles, responsibilities, and commitments for the forthcoming year. These letters serve as both a mutual understanding and a commitment to the broader team. The lack of a managerial hierarchy doesn’t mean an absence of structure or accountability. On the contrary, with the CLOU, employees become directly accountable to their colleagues, fostering a sense of collective ownership and mutual trust. Decisions, rather than being dictated from the top down, arise from peer reviews, consultations, and agreements.
Morning Star’s experiment with self-management has not just been a theoretical exercise but a practical success. The company’s consistent growth and its position as a dominant force in the tomato processing industry bear testimony to the efficacy of this model. Furthermore, the approach has become a subject of intrigue and study among business scholars and leaders. Morning Star stands as a testament to the potential of self-management, showcasing that with the right culture, trust, and tools, a business can thrive without traditional hierarchies.
The best books and resources on self-management
My clients are often eager to start their self-management journey or needing some help to take their evolution to its next phase. Either way, there are some vital reading materials and resources that I recommend to help you on the journey. Some of my clients even give this reading list to their team to better prepare them for the road ahead. I think this is important, especially as too often the adaptation to self-management can be top-down driven, which in an ideal world we don’t want. If there was a ‘best way’ to start, we would want it to be a choice from the team to try this together. Hence, why the book recommendations and resources can be a great way to start helping people to get to grips with the concepts and realities of self-management.
As Karin Tenelius says in the book Moose Heads on The Table – “Working in a self-managed, adult-to-adult way only works if people have shared ownership of the process and for the company itself.”
Ready to try self-management?
Self-management presents a transformative approach to how we view work and organisational structures. It is a leap towards a more empowered, engaged, and innovative workforce that can adapt swiftly to changing business landscapes. While it may require significant cultural shifts and adaptation, the potential benefits it offers make it a worthy consideration for business owners and HR professionals looking to future-proof their organisations.
If you’re needing a pathfinder on the journey towards self-management, I can help you introduce your team to self-management, help you start a pilot and experiment in self-management, and facilitate and coach teams through self-management. Get in touch today to take your first steps towards greater business agility.