10 Things You’ll Do to Thrive in Self-Management

Photo by Doran Erickson on Unsplash

Your organization has made the decision to adopt some form of self-management. Maybe it is Sociocracy, or Holacracy, or Teal, or possibly some hybrid of these. You are feeling excited — this will bring some much-needed changes— and also a bit nervous. More may be asked of you; more decision-making, more accountability, more visibility. Are you ready for this?

I’ve been working with organizations over the past few years to implement self-management, and I have noticed that some folks adapt more quickly and easily to this new way of working. Here are ten suggestions to ease your transition.

1. Discover your own purpose in life and work.

A clear and inspiring organizational purpose is foundational to self-management. Unfortunately many orgs simply assume that everyone working there is fully engaged by the stated purpose.

Think about your own purpose — what motivates you? What is the intersection between your greatest gifts and the world’s greatest needs? Maybe you’ve known this for years, and maybe you’ve barely paused to consider the question. Take some time to explore how your own purpose relates to the organization’s purpose. Getting clear about this will help you stay motivated when things feel difficult.

2. Draft a social contract

A social contract at work is a way to make explicit, and document, our promises and our requests. As members of a team, what do you commit to do? What behaviors will you practice? And what do you need from your teammates to succeed in your work?

Most organizations that use social contracts create them within teams, but some, like Morning Star, encourage each individual to draft their own contract. At Morning Star, this is known as the Colleague Letter of Understanding, or CLOU.

3. Check for ‘learned helplessness.’

Learned helplessness is a mental state that occurs when we are subjected to a negative experience repeatedly, until we conclude we cannot escape. If you work in an environment where your ability to make decisions and take action is stripped from you over and over, sooner or later you become resigned to your condition. You wait to be told. You constantly ask for direction. You keep your head down, stop making recommendations, avoid calling attention to yourself.

In self-managed organizations, we are asked to take charge of ourselves and our work. This can feel scary at first, because of our conditioning. Remind yourself that you have valuable skills, experience, and expertise; and you have agency — the ability to act.

4. Measure everything.

Every decision is an opportunity to experiment and iterate. To do this effectively, you have to know how well each experiment is working. So begin to measure things. Some things are easy to count, like new leads from the website or sales calls made. Others are more subjective, like employee engagement or financial literacy. Don’t shy away from the harder things to measure. Use proxy metrics where you must, and treat even your metrics as experiments. See what works best for you and your team.

Try not to be afraid that the data will expose weaknesses or failings. Try instead to think of these cases as opportunities for individual and team learning.

5. Work out loud.

In many traditionally-managed organizations, the word accountability is strongly associated with blame and shame. But if you think about the definition of the word, accountable means “subject to giving an account.” I encourage people in self-managing organizations to “work out loud,” or “work in public.” Rather than hiding your progress (or lack thereof), share it openly and frequently.

Use a tool like Asana or Trello to track task activity and due dates. Use a tool like Slack or MS Teams to communicate pro-actively about your work, and to stay informed about teammates’ work. Commit to using this behavior enthusiastically and you’ll see remarkable benefits.

6. Notice ‘tensions.’

A tension in self-management is simply an observed difference between what is and what can or should be. If you’ve been told enough times to keep your observations to yourself, you may be feeling a bit of that learned helplessness we touched on above. See you can snap out of it, and begin to simply notice things. Ask yourself, “huh, I wonder if there’s a better way to do this?,” or even “I wonder if we should be doing this at all?”

Make proposals to address the tensions you observe, using the decision techniques named below. When everyone begins to (1) notice tensions, (2) make proposals, and (3) run experiments, suddenly the organization comes alive with innovation.

7. Learn to make decisions.

Our decision-making muscles can atrophy when we work in predict-and-control hierarchies. We have all had the experience of making a decision, only to have it rescinded or overridden by our boss. In self-managed teams, we have to get comfortable making decisions again.

Knowing which type of decision you are facing is the first step. Is it one you can make on you own, with little or no input? Or one that you will make only after seeking feedback from stakeholders? Or one that will require the consent of your circle (self-management jargon for a team)? Two processes that you will want to learn are the Advice Process and Integrative Decision Making. These take practice, and with time, people (and teams) become more and more efficient at making powerful decisions.

8. Create a personal/professional development plan.

Most traditional organizations treat learning as an event — a class, or a workshop here and there, outside the normal routine of work. The focus is on job-related skill-building. Most of us have been conditioned to wait for our boss to suggest a training plan.

Self-managed organizations are intentional about individual and team learning in the context of the work. Skill-building is useful, but whole-person human development is a richer course of action. And the duty to act is yours — no waiting around. Ask your teammates what you need to learn to be more effective. Invite them to be honest. And then create a plan to work on your biggest needs each day at work, in the context of your roles. Not that you’ll never attend a class, or read a book; but beyond that, how can you design your work to stimulate your growing edge?

9. Conduct retrospective meetings.

Think how many decisions you make in a week at work. Multiply that by the number of people you work closely with, and again by the number of weeks in a year. Now, count the number of meetings you held in the past year for the explicit purpose of reviewing those decisions. A much smaller number than the first one, I’m guessing.

Self-managed teams conduct retrospective meetings on some regular cadence, perhaps weekly, monthly or quarterly. The purpose is to review, without blaming or becoming defensive, the work we do together, and to learn from the conversation. What’s going well, and what needs revision? What do we want to continue, start, and stop doing?

To thrive in self-management, consider being the one to call these meetings, to make them fun, and to capture and share the learning.

10. Step into your own power.

Finally, power in self-management comes from your reputation, not your job title. We’ve been conditioned to view promotions as the only real indicator of career progress, and so the shift to self-management can feel disorienting. How do I get ahead? What does success look like if not a higher rung on the company ladder?

In this way of working, leaders are people others look to for guidance, support, and encouragement. Leaders are in demand to join projects and circles, because they get things done. So build your rep — become an expert, be conscientious, be consistent — and you will thrive.

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