Using self management in the workplace

A while ago I came across a business that really excited me.   California based Morning Star packing company is a fabulous example of how running a business radically makes it successful. Its radical approach to management has taken it from a one-truck operation in 1970, to a $350 million operation now. That radical approach is self management.

The principle behind self management is that there are no bosses. And I think I was drawn to it because I’ve always been a bit of a maverick.  When I was employed I liked to challenge and push the boundaries and I didn’t like hierarchical organisational structures.

As a result of their belief that self management is the way businesses should function, Morning Star has set up its own self management institute.  Its mission is to cultivate a superior organisational structure that creates happy, healthy and productive businesses.

Two of Morning Star’s values are in its motto ‘Excellence through Commitment’, and although the company website makes no reference to its values, it is clear that innovation, trust, teamwork and family are also core values.  You only have to hear how the staff describe working for the business to get that:

And that’s the point – the staff are fully bought into the organisation’s values and how they influence the way they do their jobs.

Although the concept of self management in the business world is largely misunderstood, I hope it’s the future. Businesses that will thrive in the modern world will probably need to move beyond traditional command and control structures.

Leadership is not redundant

For a start, it does not mean that leadership is redundant. Tasks including setting direction and objectives, planning, organising and evaluating still need to happen.  They just happen at a number of levels, rather than being confined to people at the top of the organisation.  There is probably more leadership and management going on at any time in self-managing organisations than in those with traditional structures.

I’m sure this will be a scary concept for leaders who have risen through a traditional hierarchy. They may believe that their seniority has earned them the right to make decisions.  But so often it’s the staff much closer to the business action who are in the best position to contribute ideas and suggestions.

Empowering others

Traditional leadership is about empowering others, which implies that people at the top of the organisation are responsible for letting their subordinates have some power.  In self management organisations, people have that power by right. Self management challenges what it is to be a leader.

People will hold different levels of power according to the job they do.  A factory manager may take overall responsibility for operations, but each machine operator has the power to do his or her job in the most effective way.  Roles are interdependent – one person’s success can be as a result of another’s and that promotes cooperation. But the underlying principle is that all staff are challenged to take responsibility and be the best they can be.

That may be a culture shock to staff. With power comes responsibility. In my work with businesses, I’ve seen many examples of staff who have no idea how their job contributes to the business’ success. Unsurprisingly the people at the top of the businesses have largely been autocratic or benevolent dictators in style.  One particular delusional business owner believed his business’ values included trust and respect.

Stephen Covey made the point well when he said that the easiest thing to do when nagged was to do work!  I can certainly remember times when I just did work because the person I reported to valued that above my showing initiative or challenge. And I know what that did to my motivation levels.

Agile and dynamic

Self-managing organisations are agile, have dynamic informal hierarchies that develop according to particular situations or needs and are often built from the bottom up.  Everyone is a leader.  They lead themselves and they provide support to each other.

The leadership challenge is to reinvent the practices and structure of the organisations to make every member of staff powerful in their own right. One person’s power does not diminish anyone else’s.

For those of us who have had careers in traditional hierarchical organisations, the concept of self management may be scary.  Young people, on the other hand, have grown up in the disruptive world of the internet where they instinctively understand self management. That’s why so many business leaders find them hard to manage.

This may sound Utopian.  It’s not. And not only has it been the reason Morning Star has become so successful; other successful organisations have been using this philosophy for years.  I suspect the reason why more organisations have not adopted this obviously successful way of working is that the ‘leaders’ fear to lose their position which is often based on their status rather than their ability.  That has certainly been my experience.

The writing is on the wall

So for all the traditional, so-called ‘leaders’ out there, watch out because the writing is on the wall.  For the future, staff who have put up with poor management practices want something different.  Young people want a different approach. I’d love the businesses I work with to adopt self management.  That’s a challenge but I’m up for it because I believe it is the future.

My guess is that if someone could work for a values-based organisation that practises self management, why would they want to work elsewhere?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Fiona helps ambitious business owners and managers to develop the mindset, skill-set and systems that underpin high performance

She provides bespoke strategy, change management, and leadership development support to overcome barriers to growth.