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Self-Managing vs. Manager-Free Organizations

  • Moscow, Russia
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We are in trouble. On the one hand, most managers are weak and incompetent. Their mistakes destroy our motivation, decrease productivity, and lead to business failures. As a result, many of us believe that managers are evil. On the other hand, there is a new idea that self-managing organizations are the future. Its proponents are trying to convince us that chaos is better than management mistakes. They want us to believe that subordination, hierarchy, control, and order are new bad words to be prohibited in a respectful society. We must stop them!

Loro (2018) by Paolo Sorrentino
Loro (2018) by Paolo Sorrentino

Self-managing organization are, as some researchers believe, post-bureaucratic, humanistic, democratic, and even holacratic. Frank Martela says that self-management is “an ideal type of organizational form.” The idea is trendy, especially after the publication of Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. However, “calling it a novel phenomenon is utter nonsense,” according to Joost Minnaar—the idea has been known for decades.

My first question is: what exactly was wrong with bureaucratic, un-humanistic, and non-democratic management? James R. Barker made it clear a long time ago: “workers in a self-managing team will experience day-to-day work life in vastly different ways than workers in a traditional management system. Instead of being told what to do by a supervisor, self-managing workers must gather and synthesize information, act on it, and take collective responsibility for those actions.”

Sounds very attractive. Nobody tells us what to do anymore! We just look around, gather information, synthesize more information, and “act!” (whatever that means). Of course, we must not forget that money somehow arrives in our bank accounts every two weeks—this component of the old un-humanistic bureaucratic management model we don’t want to get rid of, I believe. Right, Mr. Barker?

Seriously, who in a self-managing organization makes these decisions:

  • An employee asks for a raise
  • An employee gets lazy and must be fired
  • An employee needs a budget for a new project
  • A project must be terminated
  • A new employee needs to be hired

Simply put, who resolves monetary and performance appraisal conflicts, and how? All together by “raising their thumb” as Generative Decision Making suggests? Thumb-raising will work for low-caliber questions like which kind of coffee we should order for the office next week or what the best color is for our new t-shirts. However, more important strategic decisions may only be made by those who are ready to pay for mistakes: managers.

In a traditional hierarchical organization, everybody has a manager, who is responsible for answering these questions. This is what managers are for: to concentrate authority and responsibility. This is what levels of management are for: to decompose larger authority and responsibility into smaller pieces, delegating them to lower-level personnel. I believe, I don’t need to explain this essential wisdom: it’s the fundamentals of management. Right, Mr. Drucker?

However, despite the feeling that self-management adepts are not practitioners but liberal propagandists (trying to declare freedom to everybody without giving any practically possible scenarios), there is one idea I do share with them: managers are evil. Pay attention: managers, not management! There is a big difference.

Let’s get back to the problem definition once again: We don’t like being told what to do. However, is this really the problem or is there something deeper that we are missing? Let’s see, what are the most popular issues with management that people complain about (I got them from Inc and Monster):

  • They micromanage
  • They don’t listen
  • They don’t value us
  • They don’t provide feedback
  • They don’t motivate
  • They don’t set goals
  • They don’t delegate
  • They don’t explain

The list may be much longer, but I think that the root cause of all of them is the same: managers make appraisal mistakes. As all other people, managers can’t always be objective. Instead, they are very biased and subjective. We say that they don’t listen. This is our perception. They do listen, but they don’t appraise us right, based on the information we deliver. They do listen, but they don’t call us genius. What do we say? They don’t listen! They don’t motivate, we say, but in reality they just don’t give us what we think we deserve. They don’t value us? The same story: we just feel unappreciated. We feel they micromanage? They just don’t appreciate the results we deliver without micromanagement, we stop delivering anything, and they resort to micromanagement. The root cause always is the same: appraisal mistakes.

What can we do to fix this? We should take the appraisal job away from managers! This is how we solve the problem. People must not decide whose performance is better, because they can’t do it right and this leads to all the other problems. If managers stop appraising us, they will turn into leaders, mentors, teachers, experts, gurus, decision makers, and everybody else, who we don’t hate. We hate appraisers, because they make mistakes about our performance and kill our motivation. We won’t hate them at all, if there is a system, which is based on metrics, which judge our results.

What self-managing adepts are offering is to destroy the entire management system and replace it with chaos (or something very close to it). They seem to not understand where the real problem is. They just don’t like “being told what to do” and to fix this they suggest getting rid of what our civilization has been building for thousands of years: responsibility delegation through subordination (aka “management”). They meet incompetent management that doesn’t appreciate them enough and start crying and blaming everybody with the word “manager” in their job titles. In other words, to cure the tumor they want to kill the patient.

Let me reiterate: The evolution of management is needed! We are not happy with what we have now: most managers are incompetent. However, the solution is not self-managing but manager-less organizations. We need objective metrics, automated tools (maybe with AI) to replace managers as our appraisers.

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