Self-management. It’s becoming more popular in name and theory, but it is still regarded as something that only the most extreme companies are willing or able to implement. That skepticism stems from the fact that implementing self-management is, in most cases, a gigantic change. The entire framework of how people operate day-to-day is turned on its head, all the rules and processes in the organisation have to change, employees have to learn new soft skills, managers have to stop managing … It’s daunting and full of risk. Even many of the spokesman for self-management gleefully admit to these concerns. It’s not uncommon to hear justifications along the lines of: “It’s difficult, but it will be worth it.”, or, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” While these observations are true, they also scare away many people and companies who are interested in self-management, but unwilling or unable to take the risk.
You see, self-management is like becoming a vegetarian, having a zero-waste lifestyle, or living off the grid. They are ideals that many people aspire to — at least on the surface. Many people want to avoid meat, plastic, and reliance on unrenewable energy for a plethora of different reasons, such as personal health, the environment, or moral reasons. Yet, a great number of those people will never achieve such a lifestyle. Is it because they are consciously and wilfully immoral, wasteful, and unhealthy? No. It’s because, for most people, those lifestyles are not conveniently accessible. Those lifestyles mean they would have to decide between working hard and making difficult decisions every day just for their standard of living, or effortlessly having everything they need with no extra burden. Suggesting someone do things that are difficult, uncertain, and a hassle is no easy task.
In my experience, the best way to convince anyone to make a massive change is not to repeatedly tell them that it’s better, they just need to push through, and it will be worth all the headaches eventually. Rather, the most advantageous approach is to make self-management convenient. What does that mean? It means it needs to be easy, comfortable, suitable to their individual needs, and risk-free. These things rarely go hand-in-hand with large scale organisational change, but it is possible and can have astounding effects. So, how exactly do you make such a drastic change feel convenient? Implement change in a way that applies these concepts:
These all sound great, but they also all sound unreasonable and idealistic. To make them applicable, we need to clarify what it means and, more importantly, show how simple it can be to achieve each of these.
Even in companies with the greatest employee experiences, organizational changes are often forced on people. Changes can be done with all the best intentions and for all the right reasons, but if it’s forced, it will often be resisted and taken negatively. If I stole your car and offered you a Tesla instead, despite it being a better car in every way, you might demand your car back solely because it’s yours and you don’t like how this new car came about. On the other hand, if I set the keys to a new Tesla on the table and gave you the option, you would likely jump on that deal in a heartbeat. Organizational changes work this way as well.
Implementing self-manage can uproot everything, even if there is nothing but benefit to doing so. Rather than forcing it and telling employees they will thank you later, you instead make it optional. For example, try saying, “Right now you have to get your manager’s approval for decisions and pretty much do what they say. If that’s working for you as-is, great! Otherwise, you can transition to this other system where you have more autonomy, but also a lot more personal responsibility.” Many people will jump on that deal immediately. Others will keep an eye on it and, once they see it working well for enough of their peers, join in for themselves. The best part? You don’t have to spend any time or resources desperately trying to get people on board, running classes to speed up mindshift changes, or arguing with others about whether or not self-management is better. Many people will eagerly step into this new system entirely on their own with virtually no effort on your part.
On the surface, self-management is great for everyone, and it seems especially beneficial for front-line employees. Those who normally have no power gain decision-making power, autonomy over their own work, ability to make changes, and so much more. Unfortunately, that’s not how it often feels. Going through a self-management transition as a basic employee feels like you are a guinea pig being forced to change everything about what you know and how you work so that the already highest paid executives will make even more money off your back from the company’s new innovations and PR. Understandably, many people will resist self-management because of the stress it puts on their shoulders while they get nothing in return — at least nothing they think is of value enough to warrant it.
Now, the most effective way to solve this problem is also the biggest ask of any company: profit sharing. It’s the biggest win-win situation there is. If self-management succeeds and the company makes more money because of it, I will also take home more money every paycheck? That will make me work harder, innovate more, and help changes succeed. There are countless ways of creating a win-win situation; it just means both parties get something that feels equally beneficial out of it. Need to raise quotas? Let employees work from home whenever they want. Longer meetings? Pizza at every meeting. Not sure what they want? Just ask.
When it comes to adopting self-management, there is one reaction I hear more than any other: “That might work for company X, but it would never work for us.” This is because every company is of a different industry, works in its own way, and has its own unique culture. Very rarely can you pitch the same product in the same way to a small startup tech company and a decades-old, multimillion dollar retail company. Not only are the companies radically different, but the people that work there likely have very different priorities.
The staff at one company might be motivated with a deal along the lines of getting more money based on how much work they produce. At that company, a method of self-management that rewards maximum effort with increased pay could be hugely successful. However, employees at another company might not care at all about that and will instead want to be given shorter workweeks and more vacation days. Whatever method you are proposing, make sure it’s tailored to the needs and desires of those who will be affected by the change. It’s for this reason that I always advise people not to look at a company and say, “I want our company to do that exactly how they do!” How they do it might never work for you. Instead, use that vision as a goal and tweak it as necessary to customize it to what would be best for your organization.
Even if you create the perfect structure that is personalized for a specific company, is filled with benefits, and can be implemented easily, you will be turned down many times. The truth is, big changes are incredibly risky, and self-management is one of the biggest changes a company can make. No matter how good your proposed solution, if a CEO thinks their company will fail miserably during the transition period, they won’t even bother trying to get into self-management.
This means that an entire organization, whose leaders are actually interested in self-management, still won’t try it because the benefits don’t outweigh the risks. In these cases, you need to propose the change in a way that is risk-free. Completely transitioning a company from traditional hierarchy to totally self-managed as one giant piece has a huge change of going poorly. Instead, break the change down into smaller and smaller pieces. If you think a change is too minor, but the executives who make the decisions are still skeptical, keep narrowing it down.
For example, if someone were interested in Holacracy, but didn’t want to risk everything that could go wrong by changing everything about how their company functions, suggest they just try an insignificant change to meetings. Say, “Run your meetings like normal. The only difference is that I will stand in the corner and call out when people are interrupting one another.” That takes no big changes, nothing new to learn, no chance at losing a lot of money — there is nothing to lose, so they will have no reason not to let you try it, and that is what you are aiming for. Chances are, that meeting will be a tiny bit more efficient than their normal meetings. Once they see that success, do a bit more. “This time, I will also help direct conversations one at a time and I’ll write things down so we can all keep track of what’s being accomplished.” Bit by bit, you are implementing facilitation practices and they will see the benefit and want more. This approach takes much longer, but it has the benefit of getting a company to aim for self-management; a company that would otherwise never take the risk.
It is sad to admit, but this is the hurdle I see most often preventing companies from exploring self-management. We often hear about large, successful companies experimenting with the latest self-management models, and consultants are always eager to strike these big deals. However, there are far more companies who would love to become self-managed, but need help getting there. Unfortunately, self-management services are typically well outside the price range of smaller, start-up, or non-profit companies. These organizations don’t have access to the help they need to create a far better working environment for their employees. Furthermore, there are many times that companies with plenty of money to spare also won’t hire help solely because the cost doesn’t seem like it would be a good return on investment.
The last thing you can do to make change convenient? Make it accessible to those who could benefit from it the most. There are many ways of doing this, but there is only one thing you need to know: there is always someone willing and able to offer the help you need at whatever price you can afford. First it is to look internally within your own company. There will always be employees who already have the skills and knowledge to do what you are looking for, or who are passionate and eager to learn. You are already paying them and can also give them the opportunity to progress, learn new skills, and improve their resume.
From the outside, unconventional approaches to payment can work wonders for the many companies out there who are used to help being far outside the reach of their budgets. While it isn’t easy, there are consultants out there who will work for much lower prices, utilize a “Pay What It’s Worth” model, offer a money-back guarantee on their results, provide their services in exchange for something non-monetary your company can provide, and so on. There is always someone out there who is willing to help; it just requires a bit of extra digging to find them, but not only will it help accomplish what would otherwise be impossible, it will also help that person to do something they are passionate about and help where it’s needed.
As you can see, even a change as massive and daunting as self-management can be done in a way that is simple, easy, and has very little resistance. It’s easier said than done, and it may take longer than you’d like, but it can be the difference of a lifetime for countless people around the world who benefit from their workplaces becoming self-managed.