Three pitfalls of self-management (part 1)

A few weeks ago I had a fantastic conversation with two fellow self-managing organisation enthusiasts (shout out to Kate Beecroft from Enspiral and Michael Arnoldus) over drinks and dinner in Barcelona. We are living in The Emergent Era and for me these types of conversations are invaluable in terms of tapping into the social capital in our communities and making sense of the world around us in order to be more mindful of the work we are doing and how we are showing up in our lives.

Over the course of the evening, we posed some challenging questions to each other. What emerged for me were three pitfalls of self-management which I’d like to share. These are rough and ready ideas, thoughts, and questions that I’m still processing, so discussion and feedback is welcome!

Pitfall #1: Assuming self-management is for everyone

When I first set up my business, Reimaginaire, I made an arrogant assumption that self-management was for everyone and all companies should be aiming for it. In one client workshop, I drew this four-box model:

Source: adapted from a seminar by Carl Erik Herlitz (Tuff Leadership Training) and quoted in this article

When I asked my client (a fast-growing tech startup) where they wanted to be, I was surprised to learn it was in the bottom, right-hand quadrant. I realised then I had fallen into the trap of false consciousness and had been silently judging anyone who didn’t know about or aspire to be in this magical top, right-hand quadrant! Not every company has the energy, resources, or desire to be super flat and autonomous. But every company can benefit from support in being a more mindful, conscious, healthy version of whatever model they operate in.

Kate told a story about a tech company who created a wonderful self-managing culture and set of practices but a particular team of people were reluctant to participate. It turned out these guys, developers, just wanted to code. They needed time and focus to be able to solve problems and make improvements, and they really weren’t that interested in being involved in shaping the direction of the company. To have forced self-management on them would have been completely counter to the spirit of the thing! My colleague Karin Tenelius, who has coached teams in self-management for over a decade, has a phrase I love: “In organisations, people should have the freedom to engage at their highest appropriate level.” We all have different needs at different times in our lives and work should be flexible enough to allow us to engage at our highest appropriate level, whatever that might be.

Is self-management only for the privileged few?

We also talked about the fact that we three are fortunate enough to do work that we enjoy and find meaningful. We have been able to choose self-management and work with clients who can afford to do the same. But what about the millions of people in developing countries for whom a job is a matter of basic survival? I sometimes feel pangs of guilt or shame about this — am I just serving an elite few? Could I be doing more?

I was reminded of a scene in the recent climate change documentary Before the Flood in which Leonardo DiCaprio is totally taken to task by Sunita Narain, director of theCentre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi. On the subject of developing countries like India using cleaner energy, she challenges him saying that whatever problems America created in the past, “we will create it in the future.” She asks him, “What is the US doing that the rest of the world can learn from?”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Sunita Narain in ‘Before the Flood’. Source:

So although ‘the end of working for a living’ might be much further off for many in developing countries, perhaps our duty is to role model what the future of work looks like. And whilst that might not necessarily be self-management per se, we certainly owe it to future generations of workers to treat employees like human beings and to help liberate the creativity and intelligence that so often lies dormant in today’s workplaces.

A few years ago, Julian Wilson, founder of the self-managing organisation Matt Black Systems, challenged me on a statement I made, that “if everyone had the opportunity, they would want to work in self-managing ways.” He feels a tension because whilst self-management has helped his company and employees be extremely successful, he believes such models are elitist and could exclude whole sections of the population who aren’t able to work in this way. In our trio in Barcelona we asked: is self-management only for the privileged and intelligent? This catalysed two more questions. First, if self-management (not hierarchy) was the dominant paradigm of work, would everyone want to/have to do it? And second, can self-management be taught?

Can self-management be taught?

Back in April I wrote a blog about a concept in Charles Duhigg’s latest book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. He tells the story of Charles C. Krulak who used research on internal locus of control to redesign the 13-week bootcamp used to train the United States Marine Corps. Internal locus of control stems from the belief that you (and not external factors) are in control of your life. The training US Marines now go through develops their internal locus of control, enabling them to be motivated, autonomous individuals. Similarly, in the book Team of Teamsby General Stanley McChrystal, soldiers learnt to operate in decentralised teams with radical transparency of information in order to manage the complexities of trying to defeat Al Qaeda. This meant dismantling the hierarchy and information privileges that had been the hallmarks of the previous military paradigm and learning totally new ways of being and working together.

And over in Sweden, Karin Tenelius and the team at Tuff Leadership Training have developed ways of training managers and employees in new approaches to leadership and teamwork (see this blog for more detail). Three components of this are:

  1. Talking about what’s under the surface — daring to speak up about interpersonal and working climate issues in a team (similar to Amy Edmondson’s research on psychological safety) and taking responsibility for creating the culture you desire, individually and collectively
  2. Coaching leadership — a way of being that involves relating to people’s potential and results in others being responsible and productive
  3. Decision-making — alternative, more involving ways of making decisions that aren’t top-down or consensus-based

It seems to me that self-management is a process of unlearning the hierarchical and passive habits we’ve acquired through school and traditional workplaces, and learning new skills and ways of being that are conducive to self-managing work. Therefore, if our schools become places that nurture these skills (as I hope they will) and organisations become more human, will self-management be a natural byproduct? We are all self-managing creatures in our personal lives, so would everyone choose to be self-managing in their work lives if given the education and the opportunity? Or would some still prefer to regard work as just a means to an end?

Michael said a training programme for self-management would be hugely valuable in the context of preparing people for the future of work. What might such a course look like— could it be online? Or would it have to be face to face? — and what it might contain? We talked about covering self-management tools, developing the ability to take responsibility and initiative for realising ideas and personal leadership. And could it be about self-management in life, not just work?

In part 2, I’ll cover the other two pitfalls of self-management we discussed: how rejecting authority can create a leadership vacuum, and how to build teams and cultures that are resilient enough to endure changes (especially changes in leadership).