Is Self-Management for Everyone?


The short answer: No.

Talk to anybody who has ever introduced or been part of a transformation from a traditional hierarchical organization to a flat one, with no bosses and more autonomy, and they’ll tell you that it is not easy.

Some don’t want to give up their power: “I worked my whole life towards a leadership position, and now you want to do away with them?!”).

Others might want the autonomy but don’t want to take on additional responsibility. Having to make decisions without being able to escalate them to a boss can be stressful.

Still others don’t want to be bothered: “Just tell us what we need to do. That’s your job. And now you want us to do that too?!”

As a result, some people will always leave the organization or ask to be put back into a traditional team if there are still any around in your organization.

In my experience, part of the problem is a misconception about what self-management is and isn’t.


  • No more direction by my manager
  • No more clear roles and responsibilities
  • Not clear who will make decisions
  • No more leaders
  • No more structures
  • Everybody can do whatever they want


More leaders. Not less. Everybody in the team will take on a leadership role. Yet, not via a fixed position, but rather on a dynamic and rolling basis based on expertise or experience for a specific topic.

Decision-making rules have to be made clear. It doesn’t have to be a democracy. It can if the team thinks that’s best. It can also vary based on the nature of the decision or topic. (An entrepreneur once told me, “Why should I ask my 20-year-old accountant, who has no business experience and no idea about our industry, about what our strategy should be?” Well, maybe she has a good idea, maybe not.)

The hierarchy as the traditional key structuring element is replaced by other structuring elements, such as:

  • Clear processes
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Clear decision-making rules
  • Transparent processes about how to come to a conclusion if something is not clear

Guidance can come in the form of OKRs or a clear mission instead of instructions from a leader.

“Make the mission the boss.” — Gary Hamel.

But, no matter what you do, some people will still not like it.

Why is that?

Mike Lee from INSEAD and Paul Green from the University of Texas recently published the results of a study aiming at finding out whether decentralization — defined as flatter, more autonomous work arrangements — has an impact on work experience.

Work experience thereby was defined as a function of job satisfaction, engagement, and turnover intention.

The research site was a state government agency, which implemented Holacracy.

They found that decentralization:

  • Improved the work experience of employees with high job-related ability and a strong a priori preference for working in decentralized structures.
  • Negatively impacted the experience of employees with low ability and weak preferences for decentralization.

All in all, their results challenge the view that self-management and more autonomy will improve the work experience of all employees, and show that the impact on job-satisfaction, engagement, and turnover intention depends on two factors:

  • Whether people have a preference for this kind of work environment, and
  • The level of capabilities to perform their job autonomously.

What does this mean for your organization?

These results don’t mean though that you should completely forget about giving your employees more autonomy.

First, the state government agency mentioned above introduc Holacracy as one form of self-management, which the authors acknowledge has been identified as an extreme form of decentralization. There are different degrees of autonomy and self-management/leadership, which I wrote about elsewhere. Other forms might be more appropriate and can be followed to increase the “self-management maturity” of a team or organization.

Second, some people have described how they initially didn’t like self-management, but wouldn’t want to get back to work in a traditional organization, once they had fully mastered how to make it work. (See for example Stefan Heiler’s account of the transformation of his family owned business into a self-managed organization — German only)

Third, the way self-management is introduced and how people are prepared might play an importatn role as well. Change Management and appropriate training and support are vital. (See for example Domenico Traverso’s account on how Danfoss managed to create a new self-management business unit. He points out how they missed the change management aspect.)

Preparing and enabling your employees will require:

  1. To work on their job related skills, so that they can fulfil their taks without any supervision/micro-management.
  2. Equipping them with the necessary skills to self-manage. Especially when combined with hybrid/remote forms of work, I believe that being able to manage personal productivity to become even more important.
  3. Informing team members about the implications of self-management and what it actually means. As most employees in your organization are unlikely to have worked in self-managing structures and teams, make sure the implications are clear: greater autonomy and freedom on the one hand, more responsibility and less direction from above on the other.
  4. Establishing structures and processes. Just as self-management doesn’t mean that there is no leadership, it also doesn’t mean that there is no more structure. As most people in organizations are used to some form of structure, which usually comes in the form of hierarchy, it is necessary to replace that classic structuring element with a new form of structure, e.g., clear roles and responsibilities, clear decision-making rules, clear processes, clear mutually agreed-upon objectives.

Finally, make sure to support your teams in the transition. I see many organizations these days, who just issue some guidelines on hybrid/remote for example. Just sending around some fancy pdfs will not be enough. The transition should be facilitated and accompanied.


All these arguments point toward the need for a flexible approach. One size will not fit all, and people need to be managed according to their preferences. If your organization’s ambition is to move towards self-management, meet people at their current ability level. And even then, it won’t be for everybody. And that’s fine. Be transparent and provide the needed information. Treat everybody as the adults they are and have adult-to-adult conversations.