The Business Case for Managing Ourselves

The Harvard Business Review published a post by Vineet Nayar on Who is the New CEO? The article is a well-thought out vision that, in the future, successful CEOs will focus on building decentralized organizations and enabled employees.

This makes total sense to me.  I’m sure businesses right now don’t want to build extra layers and structure.  That can be very expensive.  What they want are people who understand the organization and feel comfortable identifying problems and taking action without a lot of supervision.

The challenge is, this concept is somewhat new to companies.  Let’s face it, the empowerment phase never really caught on.  Many organizations only know how to operate in an environment of “approvals” or “directives.”  For example:

  • When two employees have a disagreement, where do they go?  Either to their supervisor or HR to solve it.
  • If there is a problem with a process, what do employees do?  Ask their manager how to fix it.

The only way I can think to enable your workforce is to teach them how to become self-managing.  Give people the resources to manage their own behavior and hold themselves accountable.  But I’d add – instead of just a high-level theoretical overview of the concepts of self-management, offer employees hands-on tools they can use every day.  Include specific sessions on:

  • Problem-solving:  provide employees with a model to solve their own problems
  • Conflict management:  give employees a method to work out interpersonal conflict
  • Professional development:  offer guidelines for employees to create their own learning opportunities

And don’t just assume that your leadership team knows how to supervise a self-managing workforce.  This is probably a new concept for them too.  Remember to give them the training they’ll need to successfully lead their self-managing employees.

The latest economic data supports the notion that companies are not significantly adding to their payrolls.  This means managers need to spend more time on those things that directly generate revenue – and less time playing referee to their staff.  Add to that the impact of gig economics and managers spending their time directing contractors, freelancers and virtual teams.  It only makes sense to give employees the tools to manage themselves – it not only helps them, it helps the entire organization.

Image courtesy of BC ELN


  1. Colette says

    Your article makes great sence for the way the company I represent, Paylocity, is structured. We take pride in leveraging our state-of-the-art / cloud computing technology to help compaies reduce cost and increase efficiencies related workforce management. An article like this will help us think of ways to incorporate this new and up and coming business concept. It will also help our own management team and virtual teams take notes for our own growth.

    Thanks again for a great reading!

    Colette Cook

  2. says

    Right on the money, Sharlyn. And one activity that will help both employees and employers better manage themselves in every facet you’ve outlined is developing emotional intelligence — the ability to identify and manage the emotions of themselves and of others. How we’re feeling affects the way we deal with each other, for good or ill will.

  3. says

    @Colette – Thanks for the comment. I agree the increased use of technology is another reason self-management is important.

    @Kevin – So true. Emotional intelligence is a critical skill for leaders. Especially when you are dealing with individuals and groups you don’t see all the time (as in the case of virtual teams.) Thanks for commenting!

  4. Steve Browne says

    Thanks for the solid, baseline areas for HR and Employers to focus in this ever changing work landscape. Too often HR takes the “flavor of the month” approach and employees tire of programs that have a bright start and a slow death.

    You have captured the essentials that, if followed, would help all of us do better !!

  5. says

    Hi Sharlyn, My first visit and glad to be here. Great thoughful post! Self-management skills is what our work has been all about – but what we don’t get is why so many employees and many of their leaders, don’t get it. Yes, true that are more leaders that understand the practicality of EI and confict management skills, but too many people still brush off these skills as “soft.”
    If the orgs of the future are moving toward greater decentralization, building self-directed capacity within workers will become fundamental.
    Love for you to say more about this direction in future posts. Will be looking to future posts and tweets as well!
    PS given your comment back to Steve – this is our “mantra,” give people tools that are basic and portable – and can act as springboards to greater self-growth.

  6. says

    Welcome Louise and thanks for joining the conversation! I think the whole self-directed concept scares people. Many managers believe if they aren’t in the trenches directing activity, then they aren’t valuable. Which is so untrue.

    Managers can’t get promoted or do ‘cool stuff’ if they’re buried in the daily operation.

  7. says

    This is so true. Employees need to learn the skills to manage themselves and supervisors need to give employees the opportunities to practice these skills. Each of us can benefit from learning skills that help with problem solving, communication, negotiation and conflict resolution. I always say if you get more than one person in the room there is the potential for conflict. We all need to learn to play together and ultimately move the organization forward! After all, that is what we are being paid for.

    Good article!

  8. Kathy says

    You have to be unafraid that employees will manage themselves. Many rules circumscribe employee behavior, some so that employees understand boundaries and don’t misbehave, but some, clearly, to limit ideas in the workplace. Let’s face it, if everyone says what he thinks it can lead to idea overload, and if everyone starts doing what he thinks needs doing, the results can get out of control. Some organizations can embrace that uncertainty and the value it brings. Some clamp down. It takes a lot of courage to treat employees like adults.

  9. says

    Sharlyn – I like your article and all the comments on employee self service tools. I personally have found employees moral and productivity increases when the employer allows the employees access to self schedule tools for shifts and vacations. Even the unions are happy!

  10. says

    Thanks John for adding to the conversation. I agree – when you can give employees control over their careers – morale, productivity and engagement improve. Everyone likes to feel in control of their lives (at least a little bit).

  11. anon says

    This does make sense and it is definitely a ‘better’ way to operate an organization that the traditional layered structure. I currently work at a company that more or less has adopted this way of self-managing. However, where I’ve seen this system fail is when it comes to the end of the year with evaluations. How do you think a ‘manager’ who is hands-off all year will evaluate the team and determine who gets how much in bonus money? It ends up becoming unfair and more political than a layered organization. Perhaps if you operate a business where performance is measured mostly from quantitative metrics (such as sales), you could establish goals and targets. But, if performance is more of a qualitative measure…I’m not sure how a superior employee can evaluate the subordinates on a fair basis.

  12. says

    Back in the day I was part of a self-managed team. It worked, but required lots of energy focusing internally to determine our vision, goals and management processes. We also had to work a great deal with the team’s manager about the boundary conditions and we were all breaking new ground. We got to the point where we did the hiring, performance reviews and raises. It was a great experience and increased our engagement enormously.

  13. says

    @Anon – You’ve raised a lot of great questions. Being self-managing certainly doesn’t give managers permission to abdicate their responsibilities. They still need to manage. It’s what they will spend their time on that changes.

    I also like your comment about discretionary bonuses. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of them for the reason you mentioned. It can turn into a popularity contest. Having a compensation structure driven by business metrics and performance can be very valuable. I’ve seen instances where even qualitative performance can have enough definition around it to be measured – and that’s the way it should be.

    Thanks for the comments!

    @Anne – Great example of how a manager’s role changes in a self-managing environment. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  14. Mario Jones says

    As a student approaching graduation and looking to enter the workforce, it is refreshing to hear that this is a trend that business and corporations are picking up on. I come from the generation that has been labeled as balking against oversight and micromanaging and I can speak for myself that I don’t work well in that type of environment. To see that business will give employees more autonomy in the workplace will be a vital tool of building a strong workforce with the new generation of workers.

  15. says

    Hi Mario. I’m glad you brought up the balancing act. I always wanted people I worked with to feel I was engaged and interested but hoped my enthusiasm didn’t turn into what was perceived as micromanaging. Thanks for the comment.

  16. says

    I agree, employees are really suppose to learn managing skills. On the other hand role of supervisors is also very important and they should also give chance to their employees, so that they can polish their skills by practicing them well.

  17. says

    Absolutely. Having self-managing employees doesn’t eliminate the role of supervisors. It actually allows them to step it up a notch and work on new challenges. Thanks for the comment!