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Can employees manage themselves?

Yes! No third party manages the trajectory of our lives and yet we get on perfectly fine. Sure we make mistakes, but that’s how we learn, innovate and improve. At the community level, no one manages the evolution of a metropolis and yet again, communities have an extraordinary ability to adapt and survive. In both cases, there might be boundaries and guidance, but there isn’t controlling oversight. The reality is that there are too many unpredictable variables involved in life for there to be any real effective control anyway. More to the point, controlling oversight is not something you would wish to endure in your personal life, so why would we at work?.

To embrace freedom at work as we do at home, e must shift from the pursuit of managing to the pursuit of:

  • Communal Purpose
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • Teaming

There are plenty of good reasons why this can work (see: “why should I believe that a new way of working will succeed?”) mainly the ever-increasing number of businesses that are not only adopting a more freedom-based model but are catapulting themselves ahead of the marketplace in the process.

One example is Wikipedia; no single company with “managed” employees could ever have achieved what Wikipedia has through people’s intrinsic motivation to contribute. The internet itself is another example - its explosion is almost entirely the result of self-organised processes.

Furthermore, the higher we go in a typical organisation, the less management and oversight there is. So, organisations are not devoid of self-management, they are just devoid of it anywhere other than amongst the Senior Leaders. But Senior Leadership is not all about technical and intellectual expertise - far from it. In fact, the converse is probably true - that long-term success in that position is far more about personal skills, character and moral courage.

The question is therefore not “can people self-manage” but “can we trust people enough”. And “can we create work structures, policies and practices that are underpinned by this trust?”. Without changing these, self-management will not work and we will set people up not only to fail but also to meet our worst expectations and “justify” a cycle of mistrust.

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  1. Cassa Grant

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