The problem of “self-management”

When you start talking about self-management in any organizational context, you instantly run into some big questions that make a lot of people uncomfortable. Most organizations are set up as a hierarchy. There are defined leaders, and those leaders make the decisions. The rest of the people, from middle management to rank-and-file, execute on the work associated with those decisions.

Well, at least that’s how it used to ideally work.

Digital tools, globalization, cost structures, and shifting human mentality changed a lot of this. For example, in most companies right now, there’s no need for middle management anymore. Why does it still exist, then? Because change is hard. Self-management emerged as an idea for several different reasons. One was the management buzzword term of the year back in 2012, i.e. holacracy. Almost every experiment with holacracy has been an abject train wreck, which should probably teach us something about self-management.

Problem is, most lazy journalism clings to these ideas about how different millennials are going to be. Almost none of these ideas are definitively right, but we can’t get enough of the narrative. Let’s be clear on one thing, though: the only major difference between a 25 year-old now and a 25 year-old in 1963 is the amount of information available to them in their pocket. The mindset is very similar. We can adjust technology and connection, but we can’t writ large change human beings and how they move through life relative to upbringing — until the AI robots come and crush us all.

So, by my count, a lot of businesses are struggling with how exactly to best manage their people in 2016 and beyond. The old models don’t seem to be working anymore.

But, at the same time, it’s crucially important for any business leader to believe he/she can ‘scale’ something. So, could self-management be taken to scale?

Probably not. Let’s dive deeper.

Self-Management Examples And Issues

Huge deep dive in the new issue of Harvard Business Review called “Beyond The Holacracy Hype,” and here’s a section up near the top:

Our research and experience tell us that elements of self-organization will become valuable tools for companies of all kinds. Yet we see real challenges in embracing the approach wholesale — Zappos is still grappling with them, even though its holacracy adoption circle has regained its footing. Other organizations have decided it’s just too consuming to go all in.Medium, a social media company that recently dropped holacracy, found that “it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale,” Andy Doyle, the head of operations, explained in a blog post about the change. Using self-management across an entire enterprise to determine what should be done, who should do it, and how people will be rewarded is hard, uncertain work, and in many environments it won’t pay off. So we’ll also look at circumstances in which it makes sense to blend the newer approaches with traditional models.

The article has about 1,500+ words after that — maybe more — and in reality, nothing more needed to be written. Here we go with the key phrases:

  • “Real challenges in embracing the approach wholesale”
  • “Difficult to coordinate efforts at scale”
  • “How people will be rewarded”

Alright. We good so far?

Self-Management And The Dirty Little Secret

I’ll break this into two chunks.

Issue 1 is how we think about work. We want it to be a very logical place, so we throw process at everything under the sun. Unfortunately, though, work is made up of human beings. Henceforth, it’s an emotional place. We make a lot of decisions about work without considering human psychology. A good example of this is how we treat “professionalism.” Showing your emotions at work can doom your career in many places, but take something like Orlando and the shootings. People want to discuss that with others. We’re social beings. But ‘professionalism’ says you shouldn’t. That’s a major problem with how we think about work.

Issue 2 is that people are different, and they come into their job every day with different needs and priorities. Some people, admittedly, just want a paycheck. Some people want to be the CEO. Some people want to surf BuzzFeed all day and not have anyone bother them. People are, and always will be, different.

When you combine Issue 1 and Issue 2 above, that’s pretty much why you can’t take self-management to scale. Work is an emotional place with a mix of different personalities. There would be no logical way to move all those emotions and all those personalities towards the same page.

It’s hard enough in a hierarchy, right?

Self-Management And Priorities

There is documented research that:

In the past 3–4 decades, mostly what has happened in first-world, white-collar work is this. We’ve replaced notions of ‘strategy’ with ‘tasks,’ and we’ve largely done that as companies became awful at providing any sense of relevance or connection to their employees. As that happens, employees go find relevance elsewhere. That typically leads ’em right to The Temple of Busy, where quantity of work matters far more than quality of it.

As a result, most workplaces now are a howling mess of noise. People run around screeching about their 12pm call they gotta hop on. People rush from meeting to meeting and task to task. Priorities? Strategies? A Jedi seeks not these things.

It’s impossible to take self-management to scale when the organization itself is a priority vacuum. How hard is this to realize?

Self-Management And Being Hippy-Dippy

Go back to what I wrote above about professionalism, if you can. Many people view work in a very specific, straight-ahead, I do this and I get this in return kind of way. Most people are not capable of looking at a concept like self-management and saying “Hey, I get that.” It’s the same problem with any ‘future of work’ discussion, Jacob Morgan be damned.

Let’s give a quick example. At my last job, there were 220 employees total. The CEO was very into future of work and futurist type discussions. He was a guy that ‘got’ it. If I had to go through the other 219 employees and say how many could understand a concept like self-management? I’d guess maybe 6, and none of the CEO’s lieutenants.

This is how it works. We have norms about work and what work is, and those take a while to change. If you come in preaching self-management, you might as well be leading a f’n drum circle for most people. They think you’re some weed-puffing Woodstock hippie. They just want health insurance, a check every two weeks, and a boss who doesn’t crap down their larynx on the regular. Self-management? Who’s got time for that? I’m racing to my 12:30 stand-up!

That’s the problem as I see it. You?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.