The Pressure was Too High – Why Self-Organisation is not for Everyone

Not every member of a team will be ready for self-organisation – it’s likely that some will have to leave

In my foregoing articles (here and here) I described the betterplace lab’s path to self-organisation, and gave an in-depth account of what we mean by “inner work” in the context of new less hierarchical and fluid organisational models. In these contributions it became evident that Future Workers must, in my experience, come equipped with certain competencies, or must be open to acquiring them. Among these are the competency of reflecting on oneself and mirroring others, being able to inhabit different perspectives, being able to hold tensions and ambiguities, as well as feeling a drive to realise one’s own potential.

This short catalogue of competencies already lists quite a few considerable conditions, and it’s not even complete. That’s why today I’d like to address a question that we are asked frequently: Is this form of leadership and cooperation, in which conventional structures and processes are sharply reduced, suitable for everyone?

The short answer is no. Some people have a pronounced need for security, and strong outer structures, rules and regulations offer just this. If their boss were to announce gleefully that they’ll have plenty of freedom in the future, they’d likely panic.

We’ve also observed, however, that some employees who, in theory, would welcome greater freedom in their work life, experience the necessary personal development and assumption of responsibility as too stressful. The pressure is simply too high for them. Others want to devote themselves “only” to their more narrowly defined field of work, without taking on any of the many extra tasks that need to be distributed in self-organised teams.

On the path to self-organisation – everybody can do it, but not everybody wants to

For these and other reasons, quite a few employees have left us within the five-year-span of our organisational transformation. This seems to be the norm. Our organisational developer, Bettina Rollow, reports that, in the companies coached by her, 10-20 percent of employees end up quitting over the course of the organisational development process. At the same time, I’m convinced that – approached correctly – everyone can set out on the path to new fluid and agile organisational models.

My long answer to the question posed above is, therefore: In principle, every employee can be integrated in self-organised processes, because realising one’s potential is a fundamental human activity. For everyone there’s a suitable “next step” towards more flexibility and freedom, creativity and responsibility. But these steps may differ greatly from one employee to another, and many companies won’t be able to productively support highly different developmental paths or speeds.

As a matter of principle: We can’t decree “learning” and personal development. But we can extend an invitation to employees and – through coachings and organisational development – pave the way for them to take the necessary steps.

How do the breakups take place?

Employees that don’t want to set out on the path of self-organisation will leave the company. At the betterplace lab, I think we succeeded in structuring every separation process in a constructive and appreciative manner. Since there’s no boss with the authority to fire anyone, terminations in self-organised teams are structured as developing, decentralised processes.

Since, for most people, terminations are very unpleasant, self-organised teams tend to drag out the process. Many employees fear giving and receiving highly critical feedback, and keep quiet for as long as possible. This is always counterproductive, and quite often has painful consequences, especially for the person that is being let go. All of a sudden they’re confronted with an already escalated situation which they have little opportunity of remedying.

To avoid this, teams need to practice continual and truly open feedback, through which problems can be revealed and integrated early on. In the betterplace lab we established a conflict de-escalation process, at the conclusion of which an employee can be terminated. Whatever the details, it’s important that the process be structured transparently and respectfully.

How do you find suitable employees?

Much more interesting, however, than the rare separations, was the question of how to find suitable employees for our company. Since few organisations are as radically self-organised as the betterplace lab, we can’t expect applicants to have had significant experiences with shared leadership. That’s why we try to give prospective candidates a comprehensive overview of our organisational form. In our job posting, we reference the betterplace lab constitution, in which our structures and processes are described in detail. Additionally, we attempt to find out whether applicants, besides their technical qualifications, are equipped with the necessary “inner” dispositions.

In our experience, many new employees in our team feel insecure and lack orientation for a certain amount of time. This couldn’t be otherwise, given that self-organisation is by definition fluid and therefore offers less security. Thus we attempt to determine in conversation whether applicants are good at dealing with insecurity, tensions and conflicts. This is easier said than done, given that no one would freely offer up the fact that they tend to be anxious, require a lot of praise from superiors, or passively sit out conflicts. Likewise, it’s difficult to determine an applicant’s ability for self-reflection and multiperspectivity in a relatively short interview.

Personally, I try to trust my gut. By that I mean a mode of perception that includes not just my mind but also my body and emotions. The more I train my intuition, the better it gets. Nonetheless, I often misjudge applicants. In theory, we would like to hire a broad spectrum of personalities and competencies. In practice, however, the criterium “team-fitness” often means that we end up hiring applicants who are more similar to us than we would like. But all these hurdles and difficulties are part of the transformation process. Something new is often full of unknowns, otherwise it wouldn’t be new. Much more important is our attitude and our practice: Are we trying to learn from our experiences? Are we creating spaces in which teams can discuss their dynamics? In which we attempt to confront our patterns on a meta-level? Do we have a culture that permits learning through mistakes? And do we transparently share our experiences with others who are faced with similar challenges?