Getting rid of fixed hierarchies and role description

How does self-organized work succeed?

I never really liked being the “boss”. It inspires me to develop ideas, start projects and build organizations in a team. Depending on what these manifestations need, I like to take on different tasks, sometimes subordinating myself, sometimes walking in step, sometimes running ahead. The idea of squeezing my activities into the small box of an organization chart contradicts my basic understanding of cooperation and organic development. But this is exactly the situation I found myself in in 2014. Betterplace.org, founded in 2007, and the betterplace lab, which was launched three years later, had grown from bustling start-ups to larger institutions with flat, but nevertheless solid hierarchical structures. As head of the betterplace lab, I initiated most of the new projects, developed strategy, mediated conflicts, hired (or fired) new staff and negotiated their salaries.

In 2014 I decided to organize my succession. Together with the team I  discussed the options. Was there anyone on the team who wanted to move up or should we recruit a new leader from outside? My colleague Dennis told me about a new book, Re-Inventing Organizations by the Belgian management researcher Frederic Laloux. The companies portrayed there practised a new form of fluid, self-organisation, without fixed management, bosses or role descriptions. They also put an emphasis on “wholeness”, enabling employees to show up much more fully and explicitly strive to develop their potential. A third characteristic was the notion of “evolutionary purpose” – these companies understand their enterprises as living organisms, with their own purpose. Not only me, but the whole betterplace lab team was fascinated by these concepts and we decided to put them into practice. 

The first thing we did was to set up new structures and processes to redistribute all my tasks within the team. You can read the result in the betterplace lab constitution online (sorry, German only): We developed new processes for decision making and conflict management, defined how to hire new employees, make strategy and annual planning and negotiate our salaries: among each other. The result provided maximum freedom for each employee and we expected a considerable boost in motivation and innovation.

But to our great surprise and dismay, the opposite occurred: instead of experiencing strength and courage, the team was overcome by paralysis. Instead of making courageous decisions, many employees were uneasy and anxious. Suddenly they felt the great pressure of entrepreneurship: to come up with inspiring ideas, acquire good projects, pay salaries, handle smouldering tensions, maintain good communication with shareholders and other stakeholders.

Self-management requires personal development

It quickly became clear to us that we had had a naive understanding of transformation. New forms of management require a more comprehensive transformation than just changing external structures and processes. For transformation to succeed, we must also take into account the competencies, interests and needs of each team member and develop these further. Self-organisation requires personality development. For we learned an important principle: if we reduce external structures (e.g. by flattening or completely abolishing fixed hierarchies), we lose important orientations for our own behaviour. This leads to fear and insecurity and accordingly we have to build up security elsewhere: inside ourselves.

This is one of the central learning experiences we have had in the betterplace lab over the last six years: in order to be able to work freely and fluently, we – each individual – must be much clearer and more oriented internally. We have to get to know ourselves better; know what is important to us, how we keep a good balance between our conflicting basic needs for security on the one side, and freedom on the other. We need to know what motivates or provokes us. In short: We learned, supported by our organization developer Bettina Rollow, what it means to appear as a “whole person” in the company.

A second (unpaid) job of every employee: hiding your true self

In their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan and his colleagues describe the phenomenon that in most conventional companies employees do a second, unpaid job: they hide their true selves. Especially our darker sides, unpleasant, supposedly negative aspects of our personality, feelings of shame, fear or insecurity, have no place in the established world of work. This hiding does not only cost a lot of energy, it also prevents us from developing further. Only when we step out of our comfort zone do we learn something new.

By learning step by step to show ourselves as a whole person and to be open with each other about our abilities and weaknesses, about what we can do and what we can’t.

By gradually learning how to show ourselves as a whole person and to talk openly about our abilities and weaknesses, needs and feelings, the team developed a new basis of trust. On this basis it is possible to build new, fluid hierarchies: Only when there is clarity in a team about who has what competences, where employees have their limits and what they need for their well-being and excellent work, can we build competence-based hierarchies that are temporarily formed for a task and then dissolve again afterwards. Transparent, trustworthy communication is also indispensable for openly discussing conflicts, making annual plans together and negotiating salaries.

All these experiences led us to the conclusion: The Future of work needs Inner Work. The focus on culture, clearer communication and inner work has enabled the betterplace lab not only to become fully independent of me, but also for each employee to develop their potential while at the same time doing high quality work.