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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Size (# of people)
400 – 2,400*
Nutrition Coaching and Education
Recruitment and Selection
Apparel and Textiles Industry
Nursing and Home Care
*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?
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.
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
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.