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Is Encouraging Self-Management Better Than Having Leaders?

You may be able to save money on training and paying leaders and more profitably redirect resources to helping employees lead themselves.
April 20, 2017

What would it be like if your people were able to manage themselves? Some leadership experts maintain that leadership can be overrated, particularly in knowledge-intensive industries. Well-educated, well-trained and experienced workers who possess self-management may be able to better manage and motivate themselves. And, the thinking goes, businesses may be able to save on salaries and help the organization make decisions more quickly.

Businesses often promote employees who are good at their jobs and want higher salaries into management, even though they lack experience, talent or real interest in leading others. In many cases, it could make more sense to keep top workers doing what they do best, rather than shuffling papers as a supervisor.

Self-management may make the most sense in knowledge industries such as software development, law, medicine and consulting. 

"Leadership is a little different in knowledge-intensive industries," says Sidney Finkelstein, who directs the leadership center at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business and is author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent. That's because leaders in knowledge-intensive industries may have better luck playing less of an active role in directing employees' work.

That said, self-management can also work in less knowledge-intensive fields, and in large organizations as well as small ones. Newark, Delaware-based manufacturer W.L. Gore, for instance, asks every one of its 10,000 employees to collaborate "without the constraints of traditional chains of command." Online retailer Zappos is likewise famous for a culture of self-management.

Benefits and Limits of Self-Management

In any field, having fewer leaders can help save on labor costs. According to a 2000 Bureau of Labor Statistics study,  the most recent BLS study on the matter, employees classified as supervisors had an average hourly rate that was 44 percent more than "workers with no supervisory responsibilities." (The study looked at data from 177 businesses that hired supervisors.) If employees manage themselves, companies may be able to hire fewer well-paid managers.

Flatter organizations with fewer levels of hierarchy can also hope for faster decision making. Since decisions require fewer approvals in flat organizations, companies may be able to react more quickly. 

[You become] a resource provider, somebody that breaks down bureaucracy and gets stuff out of the way so your people can solve problems. That's a little bit different world than some leaders are used to.

—Sidney Finkelstein, director, Tuck Center for Leadership

Self-management can also make an employer more attractive to younger Millennial workers, according to Finkelstein. 

"More and more younger people are expecting to have jobs that give them more autonomy and responsibility a little quicker," Finkelstein says. "If you want to attract and retain the best of the Millennials, that's a pretty good reason to at least think about and perhaps experiment with this idea."

Self-Management Solutions

However, not all employees or organizations are well-suited to self-management. Some types of workers are better at managing themselves than others and some jobs are more amenable to being done by the self-led.​

A business that aims to become self-managed may need to change itself first. A command-and-control leadership style may have to shift to one that aims to provide an overall vision. In this type of organization, instead of micromanaging and giving detailed instructions, upper management may need to make sure employees clearly understand their roles and are held accountable.​

"Clarity is the silver bullet," says Greg Bustin, a Dallas-based executive coach, speaker and author of Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture. Bustin cautions against a set-and-forget approach. Even self-leading employees may need someone they can check in with to make sure they understand their roles and to get help with any sticking points.

"There also needs to be clarity that's it is okay to check in, that that's not going to be a ding," Bustin adds.

Promoting self-management can pose some risks. Valuable employees may leave if they can't see a path to making more money by being promoted to management. The effort may even fail outright if a business overestimates employees' willingness and ability to lead themselves.

Another potential problem is that the leaders who remain, including CEOs, might not like it because it will mean giving up power.

"Your job now becomes facilitator. [You become] a resource provider, somebody that breaks down bureaucracy and gets stuff out of the way so your people can solve problems," Finkelstein says. "That's a little bit different world than some leaders are used to."

The biggest challenge may be having the right employees. Before going self-managed, an organization may need to replace many or all current workers with employees recruited specifically for self-leadership capability.

"It's not like you can take your present team and say, 'We're not going to have a leader and everyone's going to work on their own,'" says Electric Impulse Communications founder Leslie Ungar, who is an Akron, Ohio-based leadership coach.

Steps to Self-Management

Interim moves toward self-management might include avoiding hiring managers unless they're needed. This is different from the more common approach of creating management jobs that ambitious workers can be promoted into so they can earn more. Of course, if higher-paid management jobs are not available, it could mean paying financially-motivated technicians more in order to keep them happy.

Without opportunities for promotions to management, business leaders may need to share decision-making to encourage would-be leaders to stay. Some go so far as to use rotating supervisors, swapping team leaders on a weekly basis so everyone gets a taste of management. Another approach can be structuring horizontal career paths that encourage employees to develop knowledge and skills in the job they are already doing instead of seeking resume-padding advancement to management.

If self-management seems like something your business might be able to benefit from, Finkelstein suggests testing it first on a limited basis, monitoring results and modifying what you're doing based on feedback. "Even if this is a change that eventually will be perceived as better," he says, "you want to manage the process."

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