What Is Self-Management? – Part 1: Definition, Advantages, Examples

By Rodrigo Bastos and originally published at Targetteal.com

Every day, self-management in companies and organizations is no longer a mystery and is starting to be discussed in corridors and offices.

Many yearn for it, while others say it is impossible. With this article, we hope to explain basic concepts about self-management and dispel some misinterpretations.

In Part 1 of this article, you will find:

  • Definition
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Examples
  • Myths about self-management

Part 2 is here

Definition of self-management and horizontal management

When we talk about self-management in companies and organizations,  it is common for similar terms to appear , to bring clarity and avoid confusion,  we will differentiate:

Horizontal Management

A set of organizational practices that opposes hierarchical chain of command  structure, and hopes to end it  without proposing a substitute structure. It would be the equivalent of eliminating managerial positions and the directors in a company, placing everyone in the organization as having the same authority and decision-making power.

Self Management

A set of organizational practices that seek to distribute authority, giving clarity of responsibilities and maximum autonomy to each member of the organization.

In this scenario, people aren’t required to report to a superior, but instead follow a set of rules and agreements made collectively. These agreements form an organizational structure, which doesn’t require everyone to have the same decision-making power and authority. Instead, it  makes it clear how this is done and prevents the boss-subordinate relationship.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Management

We have compiled the principal advantages and disadvantages identified by different researchers and here is what we came up with:

Better Performance

In a study by Ernst and Young, a self-managed organization called Buurtzorg that works in the service of home care was compared with other traditionally managed organizations that work in the same segment and region. The result showed that self-management, in this case, decreases the recovery time of treated patients by an average of 40%, below market cost.

More Engagement

Buurtzorg is continually voted the best organization to work for (organizations with more than 1000 people) in the Netherlands. According to the Harvard Business Review, a Morning Star, a self-managed tomato processing company, makes its temporary employees feel as if they were owners and just as engaged as the actual directors and executives of other companies.

Greater Adaptability

For an organization to adapt to the needs of an ever-changing environment, it needs to make quick decisions. In a survey conducted by the Washington State Department of Technology,  the time taken, during a meeting, to resolve a problem and make a decision has dropped 93% after adopting self-management practices.

The Transition isn’t Simple

The biggest disadvantage of self-management is the time and energy needed to promote the transition. People and organizations are used to operating by the chain of command, it takes more than a workshop or application to change things. The larger the organization, the more difficult the transition is.

Examples of Self-Managed Companies

Self-management is not so new, which is great because  we have many examples that we can study and be inspired by. See the table below with some examples that show the variety of sectors and sizes of companies, where self-management has proven already to be successful:

exemplos de empresas com autogestão

Name Sector Size (# of people)
FAVI Auto Parts 500
Morning Star Food Industry 400 – 2,400*
Menlo Technologies Software Development 144
Precision Nutrition Nutrition Coaching and Education 55
Vagas Recruitment and Selection 250
W.L. Gore Apparel and Textiles Industry 10,200
Mattblack Systems Aeronautical Technology 40
Sun Hydraulics Hydraulic parts 900
Zappos Online Retail 1.600
Blinkist Startup Services 38
Buurtzorg Nursing and Home Care 9,400
Semco Industrial Equipment 1,150

*depends on the season

Myths about Self-Management

What comes to your mind when you hear the word self-management, horizontal management or distributed management? Part of our work at Target Teal is to demystify these terms and ward off any phantoms, so that organizations, considering this path, can have more peace of mind initiating the transition processes.

Here we have chosen some phrases that, although are widely used, are far from what we believe to be true about self-management.

There are no leaders in self-management

We stopped associating leadership with a position or function and started seeing that in each situation different leaders can emerge.

This fluid nature of leadership for some may generate insecurity, but it validates what already exists naturally in social groups, leaving aside the hypocrisy of senior management positions, which are presumably occupied by highly trained leaders.

In short, self-management creates the space for everyone to lead and follow, depending on the moment or challenge to be faced.

In self-management decisions take long

Here there is a considerable difference between what exists in people’s imagination and what we practice and teach. Have you ever experienced endless meetings just to be able to get to consensus? Or what about those big assemblies where people vote?

We don’t work like that and definitely don’t propose anything like that. The self-management practices we use and suggest in our workshops and consultancy work take an opposite approach. We believe in agile management, and encourage that many small decisions be made autonomously by many people.

When a group (maximum 15) needs to decide something together, we don’t expect everyone to agree to the proposal, but rather consider it safe enough to try. These are practices that delegate a lot of authority and let real and practical experience be the main judge of the effectiveness of a solution.

In self-management there are no rules, metrics and structure

When working in an hierarchical organization, we know that there is an important rule, if not the only rule. “Do what your boss says!”

In self-management you need to operate following a much greater number of rules and principles, which apply to everyone. Structure and clarity of responsibilities are also two important attributes. Numbers, whether financial or that show a certain result or the efficiency of a process, are also not abolished.

What exists is a reframing and readjustment of metrics that are no longer at the service of “command and control” but instead help everyone understand a complex reality and learn about the impact of decisions made.

autogestão não funciona sem acordos

Without clear agreements on power, pseudo-egalitarian groups collapse in a swamp of inaction or are commanded by campaigning in the shadows.

A team needs to be mature before being self-managed

Self-management is the best, if not the only way for a team to mature and become ready for self-management. If you keep treating your team like irresponsible children or teenagers, so-called maturity will never take effect. Read this post that explains in more detail our position on the subject.

In self-management everyone is equal

When we talk about self-management we are not talking about an egalitarian utopia or equal power for all. We do not argue or defend that all ideas and suggestions have the same value or that one person cannot have the authority to decide something that affects another.

We recognize that people have different skills, experiences, passions and levels of resilience in specific contexts. We advocate equivalence in the definition and application of rules and principles, as well as a balanced and transparent distribution of authority.

People don’t want responsibility or autonomy

Perhaps there is an ounce of truth in the title above. After all, we have been conditioned by our society and culture to transfer a good part of our responsibilities to other people.

“We transfer the responsibility for taking care of our safety and health to the government. We transfer to teachers and parents the responsibility to educate us. We transfer the responsibility of dealing with conflicts and managing our own work to the boss.”

However, people do want autonomy and yearn for more freedom to create work. They also want to reap the rewards of a job well done. As such, we arrived at this triad: Responsibility, autonomy and reward for work.

We cannot offer alone the first two items of this trio and consider it a fair offer. When inviting people to engage in self-management, take this into account, especially when they feel wronged for the way they are being rewarded. Even if for you, this is unfounded.

All of this is still very experimental

In recent years, a lot has happened in this field. Books, frameworks, case studies and practices. And a lot is yet to come, but we must recognize the pioneers, organizations that started their work in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Organizations like WL Gore and Morning Star had to innovate a lot to be pioneers.

Today you can take advantage of what has already been done and copy without doing it blindly. You can take advantage of established standards and practices that may work in your organization. It will always be necessary to experiment and adapt, but the path taken by others makes the process that much easier.

Part 2 of this article is here 

Republished with permission.

Some paragraph spacing and Featured Image added by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Featured Image by Peter Kraayvanger from Pixabay