The Quick Summary
Self-management is one of the "new ways of working" sweeping the globe. If done well, it improves worker satisfaction and business innovation. It has proven to be a game-changer both in terms of efficiency, success, and creating more human-focused places of work. With a few exceptions, self-management is far less popular in the U.S. than in other nations. Unsurprisingly, a major reason for that is a lack of social protections for workers and a lack of incentive for businesses.
For the full story, keep reading.
To address why the United States struggles with self-management (and many other concepts for new ways of working), we first must briefly unpack what self-management is. There are many definitions out there and the concepts within go by many different names. Whether you call it self-management, self-organization, Teal, Agile, Holacracy, Sociocracy, or otherwise, they all have similar intentions:
Replacing top-down command-and-control with individual trust and autonomy. It means giving workers more freedom and more responsibility. It's a means to spur innovation and increase productivity by letting more people make decisions around the areas of work they know best. Rather than blindly following orders, individuals are trusted to do their work and are held accountable when they don't.
So, how can one country be exceptionally bad at a broad organizational concept, at least compared to the many nations where it thrives (such as Western Europe)?
Taking Risks Requires Safety
Any organizational change involves some degree of risk and this is especially true of self-management. No matter how much a person dislikes their job, they will still be hesitant if you suggest changing things up because that could mean the little stability they have is gone. Sure, it might improve things, but it might also makes things worse. Is that a risk worth taking? For the average American - most likely not.
In many countries, workers' rights ensure workers can't be fired for no reason, creating a baseline of security. That isn't the case in America. Nearly every worker in the U.S. is subject to at-will employment. That is, workers can be let go at any moment without reason or warning. When there are exceptions and an employee is wrongly let go, it is usually the responsibility of the employee to argue their case against their employer in court.
This alone creates the first hurdle in getting anyone onboard some sweeping organizational changes. If I know I can be fired at any moment, I am not going to feel safe challenging my CEO in a meeting just because our new org. structure says I can. I am not going to point out the problems I see if I think it will upset my manager. I am not going to take risks and innovate no matter how much the company wants me to because if my great idea fails, I could be out of a job.
Worst of all, for Americans, losing a job is just the tip of the iceberg.
Good Work Requires Good Health
Any job, even the great ones, can eventually become overwhelming and lead to a need for a break. When you experience burnout or uncertainty about where to go in your career, most people globally would recommend taking a vacation to unwind, clear your head, and find yourself. Vacation can be a great way to take a much needed mental health break. Unfortunately, America has no federally required paid vacation. Thus, it's up to individual states and businesses to offer it - or not.
Then again, a lack of vacation is often the least of one's worries. Far more important is something that affects health to a much greater degree: healthcare. For the vast majority of Americans, healthcare is directly tied to employment. This means that losing a job means losing health insurance. Thus, the risk of job loss has the potential to be literally a matter of life or death. Even if you do manage to get insurance from another source - even a new job - you may be required to change doctors, go through approval processes for your medications all over again, and pay more out of pocket than you had previously budgeted for.
But it's not just about the worry of losing or changing healthcare, it's the quality of that healthcare itself. For most, healthcare is an extra expense that is hopefully low enough to afford. Then there are copays, deductibles, and fees of all kinds with any service. Even for the insured, using healthcare services can be exceptionally expensive. Thus, it's not uncommon for people to avoid going to the doctor so that they do not incur additional expenses. Now, how confident and hardworking are you when you are sick or injured? How eager are you to take on more autonomy and responsibility at work when need to see a doctor but can't?
For those lucky enough to work at organizations that offer the best possible healthcare, paying for everything so employees pay nothing, it creates new problems. That is, the workplace itself offers a benefit so good you won't want to leave regardless of how toxic the environment becomes.
Once again, this brings us back to why there might be incredible amounts of pushback to self-management. While the concept itself is nothing but beneficial, the risks associated with the transition may be life changing. As an employee of a company introducing self-management, you would have to decide if the promise of a better workplace is worth disrupting the bit of certainty you have.
Changing Jobs Requires The Means To Do So
Not every company would need to become self-managed for it to become popular. Ideally, as more companies do it of their own accord, people would leave their toxic jobs and flock to this more humane places of work. Naturally, one of the most common responses to talk about a bad job is, "Just quit and find something better."
Sadly, it's not that easy. Willingly quitting a job requires having enough money saved up that you can pay your bills until you gain new employment. With a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, many workers are simply unable to save up enough money to handle the transition to a new job. This is especially difficult if new employment requires relocating.
Lacking social programs also mean that getting help during a transition period is unlikely. Quitting a job means you may not be approved for unemployment pay while you search for work. Applying for what little social assistance is available may take weeks, which may be a deal breaker if you have bills to pay right now. Even taking out a personal loan often comes with the requirement of proving you currently have a job.
Thus, workers are stuck in jobs they can't leave even if they want to. How does this affect self-management? It means employers rarely have to try to create a workplace that people want to work for. Business owners have little incentive to create more human-focused places of work because there's little competition for workers.
Looking at your own personal experience with self-management or other new ways of working, how does it compare? Take a moment to ponder what aspects society plays in your decisions about work - both where to work and how you navigate your workplace. This exercise is useful in all contexts, helping us to proactively look for cultural differences and different perspectives as we try to implement human-focused futures of work across the globe.
For those implementing self-management within the U.S., staying aware of these common roadblocks may help you tailor your implementation strategies to create a lower-risk alternative. How can you ensure security and certainty while employees are going through a change? How can you help them weigh the benefits with the well-known risks they may not be voicing?
If this is something you are currently working on and have questions, please don't hesitate to reach out!