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When self-organizing becomes a burden

Krista Naumanen • Business Designer

Self-organizing is one of the most sought-after cultural elements in a contemporary organization. However, very few accounts discuss the anxiety that the characteristics and features of an autonomous organization can cause employees. When successful, an autonomous organization is a motivating place to work, and one that helps foster the employees’ mental capabilities. However, it can also appear very different from what was originally intended. The challenges of an autonomous organization can become particularly apparent to someone joining the organization as a new employee or who lacks confidence brought on by years of experience. Individuals’ varying needs for support and guidance must be carefully taken into account to prevent the strengths of an autonomous organization from turning against itself.

A vision statement is not enough to guide day-to-day work

One of the cornerstones of an autonomous organization is a clearly stated vision that outlines the organization’s future direction, which also serves as the starting point for prioritizing one's own actions. It is essential that the entire organization moves in the same direction, even if speed and style is up to personal preference. However, when the actual key performance indicators or KPIs are not clearly defined, chasing the vision can easily lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. If an employee’s success criteria are tied only to the organization's high-level vision, they will never get the calming feeling of having succeeded. When expectations are not clearly defined, feelings of inadequacy and constant pressure keep accumulating.

It takes time to understand what self-organizing is all about

The responsibility of autonomous decision-making tends to increase pressure and uncertainty. It is vital for autonomous organizations that decisions are made together, and in order to ensure the ability to react quickly and flexibly, decision-making power must lie wherever the need for change is identified. The ability to make decisions requires an efficient flow of information within the organization. However, there will always be more information than one can absorb. It is already challenging enough to keep up with the internal flood of information of an organization alone. Separating relevant information is challenging, and new employees in particular may find it difficult to determine when they know enough to make an informed decision.

In addition to having the necessary information, decision-making requires an understanding of the big picture and its underlying causes and effects. Acquiring the big picture in an autonomous organization is complicated due to the fact that their organizational structures are often not clear and written. It can be very difficult to assess the impact of your decision on the entire organization. In a more traditional organization you know exactly who influences what, and which role each employee is supposed to play. In an autonomous organization the roles are blurrier and in constant motion. Due to the lack of a formal hierarchy, most interdependencies between employees are tacit knowledge that is slowly absorbed through everyday work. When a low hierarchy autonomous organization does not clearly provide an employee with their own areas of responsibility, getting to know the organization's ways of working takes time.

Anxiety is a telltale sign of bad self-organizing

If an individual starts to feel insecure, they will often blame themselves. The thought, "I guess I’m not self-organizing enough, because I feel insecure and anxious", starts to run through their head. This makes the person feel particularly bad, as autonomous organizations have a reputation of supporting happiness, enthusiasm and drive. Thinking , “there must be something wrong with me, because I am not faring well in this organisation”, amplifies their already existing feelings of inadequacy.

It is important to note that these uncertainties and anxieties are not caused by a person's mismatch with the role or the organization. These individual experiences simply reflect the organization’s practices and ways of working that are in particular need of improvement. A psychological safety net is especially important in an autonomous organization, as it enables and encourages employees with such uncertainties and needs to be bring them up without the fear of seeming incompetent.

In order to function, self-organizing requires strong supporting structures. These structures must be tailored to the needs of each employee. People working in different roles and stages of their careers need different types of support, mentoring and guidance in order to work optimally within a self-organizing environment.

The most important supporting structures and practices in an autonomous organization are:

  • Creating a sense of care and security for every individual
  • Mentoring in work-related matters as well as in getting into the organization
  • Short-term individual target setting and prioritization together with another employee
  • Support in sharing and filtering information
  • Stating expertise areas so that everyone knows who to turn to in their current situation
  • Always having and knowing someone to turn to in the time of anxiety

What kind of experiences do you have and what practices have you found beneficial?

Iida Mäkikallio, Filosofian Akatemia Krista Naumanen, Futurice

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Iida Mäkikallio is a trainer at Filosofian Akatemia. She specializes in emotional intelligence, internal motivation and building cultures of trust and psychological safety.

Krista Naumanen is an advisor at Futurice. She is passionate about applying design methods in business consulting as well as in organizational change.