I Can Manage, Thank You!

Scattered across the globe are various examples where greater self-management in the workplace has been realised: flat structures, peer-reviews, team accountabilities; localised decision-making; & team reward structures created by and managed by the team.

But these examples are still few and far between. It seems that our love of management means that we keep coming back to its top-down model. We just can’t help ourselves.

Being managed by others is neither inherently wrong, nor inherently good. Sometimes it is appropriate and other times it is not, but we don’t always seem clear about that distinction.

Self-management may not always be the answer, but wouldn’t it be great if we could top up our employees’ facility for managing themselves more at work? Maybe it’s time to give them more credit?

I don’t mean to suggest that hierarchical management structures have served their time and now need to be done away with. This isn’t a call to arms, or a revolutionary battle cry.

But it seems sensible to look at how we might re-engage employees so that they bring more of themselves to work.

The Management Bug

Some people believe that employees NEED managing and closely controlling. They fear that we might go off the rails if we aren’t kept in check and pointed in the right direction. They basically don’t trust us to do a good job without them.

I don’t know when we all suddenly become incapable of thinking for ourselves, talking to our colleagues, and planning our activities, but at some point in our corporate history it seems to have been decided that people in general cannot be left unsupervised.

I can see that they might have a point. After all, give some people enough rope and they’ll hang themselves.

But this isn’t true of everyone, is it? Some people given enough rope can weave masterpieces.

But once this notion of helpless or incapable or untrustworthy employees got a grip, it didn’t seem to want to let go.

And so, in some cases we’re left with management activities that are little more than baby-sitting, or controlling and dictatorial.

When people are free to make their own decisions: when people feel that they are trusted by their leaders; when people feel that they can drive and steer the work they do; and when people feel they have the authority to change things that aren’t working, remarkable thing start to happen to them. They:

  1. start taking managed risks

  2. start being creative

  3. develop confidence

  4. get excited about what they are doing

  5. develop ambition

  6. feel a sense of ownership and accountability

People who are too closely managed typically show the reverse.

Generation X(pectations)

People born during the 60’s and 70’s (often referred to as Generation X) appear to be more sceptical of leaders and more determined to have control over their lives.

These are not the same employee of old who accepted a natural deference for hierarchy and who were happy to doff their cap to the factory owner.

Generation X employees have very different expectations of their work and how it is managed. They want to be more involved in resolving their own issues and exercising their own judgement. And they are less tolerant of poor management.

Here’s a response I got from an experienced manager who received an article of mine on Absence Management.

“When I saw the title ‘Absence Management’ I thought it was going to explain the almost non-existent management style that one or two of our remote managers have towards their local employees”.

The issue here is that even when companies create tiers of management, managers are often invisible.

But Generation X employees are more savvy: if they have a manager, they want their manager to do something. They want them to manage. And they know when they aren’t managing. And when this happens, they invariably ask, “what’s the point of them anyway, can’t we manage ourselves?”

Are We Helpless?

But let’s look at some of the evidence.

  1. When you get up in the morning, who decides what you will wear?

  2. When you go shopping, who decides what you will buy?

  3. When you plan your holiday, who works out the itinerary?

  4. When you are sorting out your household utility providers, who tells you where to do your research?

  5. When you realise you need to learn something new, who goes about planning how to get it?

  6. When you are taking money out of the bank, who sets a limit on how much you withdraw?

  7. When you need to replace your vehicle, who gives you permission?

  8. When you start a relationship, who chooses your partner for you?

  9. When you are making arrangements to meet friends for a social get-together, who tells you that you can go?

  10. When you realise that your hair is getting long, who is it that tells you to get it cut?

I’d hazard a guess that the answer to all these questions was ‘You’, even though some of you might also have added “my other half”. But there’s not a manager in sight (unless that’s the type of relationship you have with your other half, in which case you might be in trouble!).

If you were at work, it is likely that someone else determined your dress code, someone else worked out who you could buy from, someone else was managing your diary, someone else was setting your budgets and telling you what you could spend, and someone else was managing your development.

I believe that people are very good at making decisions that allow them to manage their finances, and their lives. Occasionally they mess it up and they need help; often they find they can’t do it alone and need a partner or friends; sometimes they need to bring in some ‘experts’, and it’s always helpful to get some feedback. But on the whole they manage perfectly well. They may well need to negotiate with others, since few of us actually live in a vacuum. But they seem to manage this ok without falling over too often.

So why should we expect them to hang up their adeptness, their judgement and their proficiency at managing themselves as soon as they walk through the company door?

A recent survey conducted by Gallup asked “Do you feel you are able to utilise your strengths every day at work?” Only 20% of respondents said “yes”. The figure was even lower the higher up the greasy pole they shimmied.

So people who manage household budgets, complex travel plans, complicated social calendars, school runs, cooking and shopping, dealing with family crises as they arise: are equipped with a vast array of skills that they are commonly not required to exercise at work.

These skills are surplus to requirements because, supposedly, a manager exists to do those things for them!

That’s crazy, isn’t it?

Conditions Attached

If we can create the right conditions, it is possible that people will be able to use all their strengths to manage themselves at work more effectively, and possibly free themselves from the apron strings of managers.

This might actually free up managers to become better leaders, by allowing them to develop more strategic capability.

I think that’s a goal worth exploring, whether you pursue a full-blown strategy of Self-Managed Work teams, or whether you simply want to encourage greater individual self-management.

What are some of these conditions?

  1. Leadership : A Vision & Strategy

  2. Resources: A place to work and the tools to do the job

  3. Sponsors: Strong and powerful promoters and door-openers

  4. Specialists: offering expertise and extra support


But if employees could take on many of these responsibilities and activities, it becomes possible for managers to up their game by developing leadership skills such as communication, strategy setting, vision creating, company promotion, new market exploration, etc.

Most people, once they are clear about the direction they should be heading in, are capable of setting their own milestones and managing their time and workload to get them to their destination. A properly constructed team, with the right set of diverse skills, should be able to accommodate this. Key roles and responsibilities can be handed out to individual members of the team, based on their strengths (whether that’s communication, planning, finance, quality, etc.)

Only if they are struggling do they need to reach out for support from their leaders. It’s management (or co-management) by exception.

Moving to this model requires careful planning. It would be unwise to suddenly hand over all responsibility to a team without first assessing their capability and providing them with the necessary training and support.


I’m talking about:

  1.  Communication & information systems

  2. A physical space to operate

  3. A budget

  4. Equipment

Once these are in place, raw materials purchasing can be managed by the team; how the budget is spent to meet the financial targets set by leaders can be left to the team to agree; whether home-working is or isn’t allowed could be determined by the team; performance monitoring can be done by the team.

Looking at the list above, we’ve got to keep asking ourselves, “Why not?” And “Why not take on even more stuff?”


Where teams have a senior, credible, influential person within the organisation, someone who is on their side and fighting their corner, they become capable of achieving so much more than if they stand alone and friendless.

Projects have sponsors, so why shouldn’t teams? After all, a team delivers multiple projects.

The role of a team sponsor is a vital yet often neglected one. Team members often look to their manager to be the sponsor, but the role is distinctly different.

An effective sponsor should look and feel like this:

  1.  Someone with a high profile whose endorsement of your team carries real weight

  2. A trusted ally

  3. An introducer to an advantageous network

  4. Someone who can promote and publicise the work of your team

  5. Someone who is interested in the work of your team

  6. Someone who considers your team whenever they are involved in activities that could benefit (or harm) the team

  7. Someone who has access to resources that you would otherwise have difficulty securing

  8. Someone who is proud to be associated with your team

  9. Someone who you could approach in confidence, knowing that they have your best interests at heart

  10. Preferably someone who does not have hierarchical authority over the team – and is therefore a neutral force

Just imagine how strong you could be if you had one of these on your side.


No team will be equipped to accommodate every eventuality. Teams can’t afford to carry people who may only be required intermittently for their specialist input. I don’t have a plumber locked away in the cellar just in case I get a burst pipe!

Therefore, an appropriate support network needs to be established, where teams can go to access the expertise they need when they need it.

Occasionally this will be purchased externally, and the team might even manage its own budget in order to pay for it. Perhaps more commonly, it will be provided by the organisation and they can even charge internal teams for using it.

Whether made available internally or externally, the key thing will be ensuring that it is available at the point of need.

Just as we have our own private list of trade’s people in case of home emergencies, teams need their own directory of trusted and reliable specialist suppliers.

Top Down or Top Up?

We’ve assumed for too long that hierarchies are the answer. In some cases this has led to a population explosion of managers: layers-upon-layers of them, each standing on each other’s shoulders, holding up decision-making, suppressing the creativity and drive of the people below them.

Some institutions (such as the NHS or the BBC) have begun to feel like management schools. All the effort and much of the cash going into propping up the management structure, whilst people on the front line are desperately trying to provide a service that is worth having.

Management isn’t intrinsically bad. Much of it is great. There is definitely a role for it. So, you don’t have to abandon management. You don’t have to go the whole hog and create self-managed work teams. You don’t even have to stop doing some of the things you currently do as managers.

But maybe you should give your employees more credit for what they can achieve for themselves, without you.

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