Make Your Workforce Self Organizing For A Competitive Edge

What do ants and human beings have in common? They both can self-organize! How are they different? Ants continually self-organize, but humans selectively self-organize. Some people self-organize at home but not at work. Others self-organize only in certain parts of their work. In nature, without a CEO to tell species and plants what to do, nature depends on the ability of all plants and animals to self-organize.

What is self-organization in the workplace?

Self-organization at work occurs when individuals demonstrate their ability to:
  • Initiate and organize their own work
  • Align their work with the larger purpose of the system
  • Initiate and organize their own learning by actively seeking feedback, then adapting behavior
  • Manage their emotions to avoid spreading drama in the workplace
  • Be self-aware, to know their strengths and weaknesses
Think for a moment and imagine your workplace filled with employees who behave this way. How would supervision change if we had a team that could self-organize? What are the conditions that would need to be in place to foster this kind of self-organization to exist in the company?
Nature depends on the ability of plants and species to self-organize in a way that supports the ecosystem they exist in. Similarly, humans need to know the higher purpose of the organization they work for, in order to align with that purpose and self-organize to benefit the whole. Feedback in an organization also needs to foster self-awareness and continual learning and adaptation. How well does your organization do this?

Why is it so difficult to cultivate staff members who demonstrate self-organization?

A system-thinking principle is that structure drives behavior. In living systems, design drives structure and behavior.
If we wanted to create conditions for employee self-organization, we need to ask, what behaviors are reinforced by the current design of Human Resources, supervision and reward systems? And how do our current systems, structures, and design intent hinder self-organization?
Consider whether the following descriptions apply to your organization:
  • The expectations of supervisors and managers include their ability to control people below them on the organizational chart
  • Selection processes look for people who follow directions and narrowly focus on technical skills to do the job
  • Job descriptions emphasize specific duties that keep employees focused on their part of the organization rather than their relationship to the larger purpose
  • Performance reviews reinforce individual accomplishment rather their contribution to the whole organization
  • Expectations for staff behavior include “waiting to be told” or “asking what to do”
  • Staff members are permitted to bring problems forward with no solutions
If these traits accurately describe your workplace, your organization is fostering a culture that does not support self-organization!

Designing for self-organization

There are three areas within Human Resources that can be redesigned to shift the culture towards promoting self-organization in staff members – hiring processes, supervision practices, and performance reviews.

1.) Hiring to support self-organization

Typical job descriptions are a list of specific responsibilities, structured to keep employees focused on their separate part of the organization. The subtext of the job description is that employees will be evaluated based on their ability to do their duties, and if they fail, they might get fired or put on a performance plan. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that people will put doing their job first. This mindset hinders collaboration, information sharing and actively engaging with organizational priorities. As a result, independent thought, initiative, and self-organization fade away.
Instead, job descriptions should be redesigned to include:
  • A statement of higher shared purpose that every employee is expected to support
  • An expectation that employees are to initiate and organize their own work and learning, and to align their work with the organization’s higher purpose
  • Specific duties recreated into a set of outcomes the person is responsible for
  • An expectation of self-awareness to manage one’s own emotions in the workplace
  • A statement of expectation for employee adaptation, innovation, and collaboration
Beyond the job description, it is important to add questions to your interview process that gather examples of a candidate’s experience with self-organization. In evaluating candidates, you should also prioritize self-organization, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and alignment with organizational purpose as key criteria. These strategies will expand your pool of self-organizing candidates, increase recognition of these talents and align your final hiring decisions with the goal of self-organization.

2.) Supervision that fosters self-organization

People learn to stop self-organizing from their direct supervisor and from workplace culture. If you see a team with no initiative, look to the manager because that person’s behavior is likely hindering the practice of self-organization. Think of workplaces that encouraged your initiative and active engagement. What did your direct supervisor do to unleash your self-organization? This simple reflection exercise can help supervisors connect their behaviors to unleashing employee initiative, active engagement, and self-organization.

If you see a team with no initiative, look to the manager because that person’s behavior is likely hindering the practice of self-organization.

If you see a team with no initiative, look to the manager because that person’s behavior is likely hindering the practice of self-organization.

Here are a few suggestions to shift supervisor practices:
  • Eliminate micromanaging in managers. Supervisors and managers who want to control people below them diminish their staff’s willingness to bring initiative to their work. Micromanaging creates two dynamics that reduce productivity. The first is that staff members recognize their supervisor’s specific, unpredictable demands for their work, so they begin to wait to be told or ask the manager what to do. This causes the second dynamic to unfold, where the manager becomes the bottleneck in productivity. The manager may become burdened with staff waiting outside their office with questions, or a huge list of emails with requests for direction and input. Eventually, the work only moves at the speed of the individual manager.
  • Expect solution recommendations to be attached to every problem an employee brings forward. When a staff member identifies a problem, the manager should expect the employee to also bring recommendations for solutions to the problem. This simple, yet powerful, shift of expectation starts to trigger independent thought and initiative, reinforcing self-organizing behavior over time.
Ultimately, supervisors must learn how to develop staff to become self-organizing. If an organization and its culture values self-organization in their employees, then they must prioritize developing this awareness.

3.) Accelerating self-organization practices with performance reviews

  • Make the gathering of staff-initiated feedback part of the process. Self-organization requires the individual to have an accurate assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses. It also involves being open to feedback so the staff member can learn from the information they are receiving. As part of a performance review, an employee should be required to ask at least three colleagues for feedback on their own performance and relationships at work. The design of the review should also be changed to develop an employee’s abilities for accurate self-perception and for initiating and organizing their own learning.
  • Move beyond manager – employee feedback. Our default is to use reviews to support salary decisions and merit raises. This causes performance reviews to hinder self-organization in staff. The one-on-one structure reinforces the employee’s efforts to please the supervisor in order to gain the raise they want. This practice reduces the possibility for authentic feedback that would support the development of the staff member. The perception of the manager is the sole source of the assessment and evaluation, which can create a distorted view of employee performance.
In a networked organization, cooperation across departments is critical. Thus, a performance review should give a more integrated view of the employee to develop them and reinforce their ability to engage, initiate, learn and self-organize.

Why self-organize?

Nature and all living systems depend on self-organizing because it is an efficient and effective way to embed context-specific adaptation and innovation. A person who can self-organize their own work and learning while aligning with a larger system-wide purpose will look to their environment for signals that their behavior needs to adapt to changing conditions. In nature, it might be migration patterns due to climate change; in staff members, it might be a shift in a traditional practice or process that no longer fits form to function.
Creating a workforce of self-organizing employees can give an organization a competitive edge. What if all your staff members were making daily shifts to adapt to changing external conditions? What if this innovation and adaptation happened naturally, without the need for positional leaders’ direction? Think of all the time that could be saved!
Our current design and structure are weakening the effectiveness of our organizations. The first step to change is creating awareness of how our results are connected to our HR processes. Naming the desired outcomes in our employees is next, and redesigning for self-organization follows.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019). She is an advocate for a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living, a topic on which she has written and presented widely.
Post by AJO

Founded on core family values and a commitment to building strong, long-lasting partnerships, AJO approaches its work with confidence and expertise that only comes with over 40 years in the business. Working with companies of all sizes, needs and budgets, AJO develops high-performing teams and global leaders for organizational success.