The Paradox of Self-organization

By Published On: July 6th, 2021Categories: All, Confidence, Leadership

Now I know why so many of my clients are feeling tired, demotivated, overwhelmed, and frustrated…

But first, a few surprising thoughts about self-organization.

Recently I was a coach for a Senior Leadership Program at a prominent Swiss insurance company where a guest speaker, Michael Zirkler of the University of Applied Psychology in Zurich, talked about how self-organization works.

Although self-organization may sound like a free-for-all by definition, the opposite seems to be true. One critical factor to encourage effective self-organization is to have clearly defined and agreed upon set of rules to follow. They can then operate within this frame in their individual, most efficient way possible. If the rules/boundaries are the right ones, and not too many, self-organization happens naturally.

Clear rules and procedures help people have freedom and autonomy, because it allows them to be coordinated with one another.

A great example of this is the common roundabout. No one tells the cars who should go first or second, or when they should stop or start, but the cars naturally find their own flow. They are all following the same rules; driving in the same direction, giving way to traffic in the roundabout, and signalling to exit the roundabout. They don’t need direction from an outside source. The intersections with a traffic light, on the other hand, require planning and guesswork about the amount of traffic going in each direction. They need to be switched on at all times to ensure cars don’t smash into one another. Moreover, those traffic lights are often the cause of huge traffic jams in cities. The traffic light is like the command-and-control leader of the intersection. With a roundabout, you do not need a leader.

Prof. Zirkler also explained that both the people and the organization need to be prepared for self-organization to make it run smoothly. And here is where the connection between self-organization and burn-out comes in.

Arnold 2016: 56

Arnold, Hermann (2016): Wir sind Chef

He referred to a model developed by Hermann Arnold in his book Wir Sind Chef, which on the one hand looks at what happens when people are ready for self-management but the organization is not. People end up operating covertly in a self-organized way and form shadow organizations. On the other hand, if organizations are self-organizing while the employees want to have instruction on how to operate, this can lead to confusion, stress, and even burn-out. The above chart has “Employees” on the x-axis and “the Organization” on the y-axis. Employees are either “Following”, at left, or “Designing”, at right. The organization is either “Steered”, at bottom, or “Self-organizing”, at the top. When we have both a Self-organizing organization with employees who are Designing, then agile networks can happen. Notice also that if you have Following employees in a Steered organization then good old command and control works just fine.

Both people and the organization need to
be ready for self-organization

Systems and individuals have been forced into self-organization by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting move to working from home. But not everyone was ready for this. Myself included!

I wasn’t thrown by the move to working from home. My own company Coaching Without Borders has been operating in a hybrid way with employees for over 6 of its 16 years. However, on this very same leadership program where I am a coach, we have gone from more traditional training to agile leadership development. This has meant coaches and participants need to self-organize.

At first, I was truly excited about this shift to agile leadership development (I love autonomy!). However, I actually really struggled with the semi-autonomy that this reality requires. I was hanging on to the traditional way of working where I knew how to be successful. I was also trying to write my own rules about how to proceed with my participants. I was trying to be in both worlds simultaneously and found myself taking a huge hit to my energy and motivation as a result. All this trying, without much success.

Upon reflection, I realized that I needed to allow myself to let go of the past and fully embrace the improvisation that the new agile way of working actually allowed me to do. The realization shocked me. Although I love improvisation, I did not feel fully comfortable doing it. Prof. Zirkler indicated that “strange feelings” are absolutely normal while being in a phase transition from one stable pattern into another.

What people need, is to feel connected to one another

I asked Prof. Zirkler what skills people need in order to embrace self-organization; courage? decision-making? He said what people actually need, besides clear rules and boundaries, is to feel connected to one another. This is because self-organization naturally presents the challenges of uncertainty, elevated emotions, and a higher need for communication.  This encouraged me to open up to my clients and participants. I shared my experience about my struggle with this transition to self-management and got nothing but positive feedback and support. This helped me rediscover my motivation and actually have fun with not knowing how to proceed in the program. It also has helped our system as a whole, as my participants were also feeling a bit lost in the new process. Talking about our discomfort gave us a feeling; “jointly we will make it”.

Our world is becoming ever more complex. This creates the need for more self-organization since there is no rule book for the future that is unfolding. This, in turn, requires more self-awareness and communication than ever.

I hope this helps any of you who might be struggling with the demands of leading yourself in your home office. Many of you have taken a job during COVID times and still have never met your boss or peers in person! If you are struggling, reach out to others, ask for clarity about rules and boundaries, and don’t be afraid to speak up about your emotional experience. Also, always feel welcome to contact us. You are certainly not alone!

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