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Theme: Self-management, and what we can learn from it

Key Takeaways

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all managers. More precisely, we are self-managers:

“Even if you have a boss, you still have to manage yourself. You make choices every day about which tasks to prioritize, who to invite to a meeting, how to start digging out of your overflowing inbox.” (Grant, 2018)

Today, more and more people are working for themselves.

Across the United States and Western Europe, there are about 150 million independent workers. Self-management is the future. (qtd. in Grant, 2018)

Being our own boss is attractive, in part because we all have a basic desire for autonomy.

What is it like being your own boss?

Pros of being your own boss:

  • You are self-directed
  • You have (almost) complete autonomy
  • Your work is infused with purpose (because presumably, you are doing something you believe is meaningful).
  • You can choose what you want to work on
  • You can choose where you want to work (many entrepreneurs choose to work from home)
  • You can choose who you want to work with
  • You’re not always being scrutinized by coworkers or bosses

All of these reasons explain why surveys show that on average, the self-employed are more satisfied with their jobs.

Cons of being your own boss:

  • Your livelihood is fully dependant on yourself, your own performance. You have no safety net.
  • When you’re working for yourself, you don’t have a built-in team to help you get unstuck, or a boss checking in on you. You have to motivate yourself.
  • You have to create structures that allow you to get work done.

Self-management tips, and what we can learn from it

“If you work in an organization, you probably take for granted all the simple structures that help you get work done. You have a schedule, you have a workspace, you’re surrounded by people who are also working.” (Grant, 2018)

So, how do self-employed people manage themselves?

Sue Ashford, management professor at the University of Michigan, and her colleagues wanted to figure out how people manage themselves when they don’t have those structures. They found that independent workers created 4 structures to help them stay on track:

  1. Place: finding a space where they were productive.
  2. Routines: forming habits around a regular schedule.
  3. Ongoing interaction: having conversations with people who offered encouragement and direction.
  4. Purpose: reminding themselves why they were doing this work in the first place.

These structures are especially important for independent work, but they’re relevant elsewhere, too.

Author Dan Pink has been studying self-management for years. In his research, he’s discovered the effectiveness of deliberately changing his perspective; psychologists call this “self-distancing”. Whenever he faces writer’s block, he likes to shift his perspective. He doesn’t try to solve his problem; instead, he thinks about what advice he would give to someone else facing that problem.

When you take a step back from your work, you get a view of the larger picture and then connect once again with the larger purpose of your work, which in turn fuels motivation.

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Once you do this, you can start to design a structure that works for you.

Ok, what else?

Job-crafting: “You’re job crafting whenever you change the tasks or actions in your work, whether you’re adding them, subtracting them or revising them”, says Amy Wrzesniewski, an organizational psychologist at Yale.

In other words, you’re job crafting when you make the job your own: “Instead of just accepting a job description that was written for someone else, you customize the job to fit your strengths, values and interests. You become an active architect of your own work.” (Grant, 2018)

Job-crafting comes naturally for self-employed workers. But in organizations, it’s more difficult to do.

‘Morning Star’: the freedom haven

Morning Star has been in business for decades, operating without a single boss.

Well actually, everyone is their own boss.

At Morning Star, workers create their own personal missions every year. They start by writing down how they plan to advance the company’s goals, then discuss it with the colleagues who are most affected by their work to get their [buy-in]. Each member is responsible for the training, resources and cooperation they need to achieve their goal(s).

AG: Morning Star may not have managers, but they do have management. Instead of having one boss who’s always in charge, they agree on who the right person is to lead in a given situation and grant authority to that person.

“In too many workplaces, authority is driven by the ‘Peter Principle’, coined by sociologist Lawrence Peter. The idea is that people get promoted to their levels of mediocrity, and then they get stuck there. They’re not good enough to get promoted again, but they’re not bad enough to lose their jobs, which means important decisions are made based on seniority instead of by the people who have proven their capability.”

Photo by Dave Gray

You’re probably wondering… how do workers at Morning Star deal with conflict?

At Morning Star, firing is everyone’s responsibility. Anybody can request another member to leave the organization, but that person may refuse. If they do, then the decision is brought to a third party to mediate. If there is no resolution, the decision is brought to a larger panel of co-workers; their decision must be unanimous. If there is still no resolution, the decision is brought to the owner.

The point is that nobody has unilateral authority over another person.

Adam’s conclusion:

“Self-management is not about whether you have a boss. It’s about whether you have freedom from constraints imposed unilaterally by an authority figure and freedom to make choices about your own work.”

 

Questions to think about

  • How much freedom do you give your employees?
  • Do your employees have the opportunity to self-manage?
  • Do you provide your employees with the necessary structures for proper self-management, as outlined by Sue Ashford? (i.e. Place, Routines, Ongoing interaction, Purpose)

 

Applications for business

Morning Star’s form of self-management is not for everyone, but their model provides lessons for all of us:

If you’re a manager, you can probably give your team more freedom than you realize.

  • Entry interviews:
    A common business practice is the exit interview: When an employee leaves, you sit down with them and discuss the reasons they left, and then try to use that knowledge for the future.
    But this is backwards thinking.
    Why not do entry interviews?
    When new people join, sit down with them in their first week to find out what their favorite projects have been in the past and what aspirations they have for the future. Which leads to…
  • Job crafting:
    “By doing entry interviews, you can begin working with them to craft their jobs in ways that align with your goals as well as theirs. If you’re an employee, you can initiate that conversation yourself. Ask your manager for advice on how you can incorporate your strengths into your job or develop new skills, and on how to make the job you want one that’s good for the organization. If you’re your own boss, working for yourself doesn’t mean you have to work by yourself. You can choose new people, new places, new projects, new routines. If you have a vision of a better job, you have the freedom to create it.” (Grant, 2018)
  • Goal-sharing:
    If you can’t create your own personal mission statement, write down how you plan to advance the company’s goals, and then share it with the colleagues who are most affected by your work. This makes sure everyone is always on the same page, and makes it easier for everyone to collaborate.

 


References

Grant, Adam. “A world without bosses.. Audio blog post. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED, April 11th 2018. Itunes App.

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