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Perry Timms



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Self-management part three: Purpose, belonging and culture

In the final part of their series on self-management, Perry Timms and Kirsten Buck examine frameworks where co-created purpose and good governance overarching this have shaped cultures where people feel more liberated, connected and respected.
silhouette photo of six persons on top of mountain: Self-management part three: Purpose, belonging and culture

For part three of this self-management series, we’ll be covering purpose, culture and belonging. We hear a lot about purpose. An organisation’s purpose is at the heart of everything it does. 

A purpose that people can connect to that equates to a sense of belonging; to something of significance. A connection to something deeper where it feels like a combination of our hearts as well as our heads and our hands are in play.

In Dan Pink’s Drive, he named it as something transcendent. In Simon Sinek’s The Why, he describes finding his own ‘why’ as transformational. And Psychologist Daniel Dennet said that the secret of happiness is to: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it”.

It feels noble. Or like it’s only the domain of privileged white-collar workers. It may even feel elusive and unattainable to most and maybe some people don’t care as long as they get the economic tokens in exchange for their labour.

Belonging improves performance

The truth is – and Gartner data reports back this up – that year after year, we find empirical evidence that belonging (and the link to a purposeful connection to work) results in stronger application at work. 

It also leads to better and more consistent levels of sustainable performance, not to mention fulfilment and a feeling of worth and doing something of value.

Psychology Today states that: “Belonging isn’t just a connection to other people, but also to place, power, and purpose. The experience of belonging is about connectedness through community, as well as rootedness in a place, a feeling of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of mission with others”.

We hypothesise that self-management necessitates needs and strengthens the connection between purpose, belonging and people’s experience of work and their impact and value creation.

Belonging … results in stronger application at work

Creating, defining and understanding organisational purpose 

Self-managed teams still require robust governance structures. 

Good, sustainable governance is about transparency, accountability, spans of control, democratic decision making and compliance with rules and regulations, all of which are usually defined by leaders. 

With self-direction, these may be more important as the scaffold with which to act autonomously while aligned to collective and organisational success. 

Self-managed teams need clear and helpful parameters for ethical, regulated and compliant operations.

Governance isn’t enough

We believe self-management is crucial to helping people get closer to their source and, thereby, purpose. 

More dispersed leadership and transparent decision making remove the obstacles to truly feeling and embodying what purpose-led performance is all about; combining those systems and energies and their impact on sustainable, balanced, and participative performance.

Examples of this form of purpose-linked governance exist in a range of enterprises that adopt either fully-fledged self-management or other forms of autonomous activism.

US engineering company Barry Wehmiller would not describe itself as non-hierarchical or self-managed. But it has erased barriers between senior leaders and their colleagues.

They have co-created governance in that self-managed spirit. 

Their purpose of “building a better world” is felt within their culture, where human-centric approaches lead to higher retention.

Self-managed teams need clear and helpful parameters 

A positive impact through autonomy

CEO Bob Chapman believes that the only bottom line that matters is how leaders treat people. This can be seen in the co-created “Guiding Principles of Leadership” set out in 2002.

Barry Wehmiller’s spirit of leadership ensures a collective sense of influence and that there must be checks and balances if that purpose is felt throughout their working lives. Participation and transparency are crucial to that. 

This approach is exactly what is advocated by those experienced in sociocracy and any self-managed system of work. 

This proves you don’t have to declare self-management. But it is important that participation, influence and accountability are felt, actualised and have a lasting, positive impact.

In many attempts to become more autonomous and self-managed that fail, the main rationale is that things became messy, confusing and even chaotic. Often despite a compelling purpose. 

A critical question

How do we liberate and remove management interference to become self-managed while avoiding chaos and confusion?

Firstly, as Joseph Raeli highlighted, in self-managed systems of work, the removal and absence of the traditional manager role does not mean a leaderless organisation but rather can provide conditions for leaderful teams.

As Barry Wehmiller’s Guiding Principles for Leadership example shows, leadership can take different forms. 

At PTHR, we are greatly inspired by Tom Nixon’s work (based on the principles of Peter Koenig) and the perception of the leader as a “source.”

The source is the person who had the idea and took the initiative, and for the initiative to be sustainable, the source must take people along with them on its evolutionary journey.

Therefore, the source must provide clarity of vision. Also the guidance required for individuals to flourish and operate autonomously to achieve this desired state.

The source must provide clarity of vision

The more source, the better

Buurtzorg, one of the largest self-managed organisations, has source in abundance. 

A pioneering healthcare organisation with over 15000 employees and 900 nurse-led-self-managed teams prides itself in being innovative. 

There is constant attention to purpose-led governance and their ‘onion’ model articulates the guidance needed for each team to set their own parameters, all based on universal human values and the company mission.

Another example at scale is Brazilian manufacturer, Semco, whose self-managed system has inspired a methodology  in the Semco Style Institute. 

Ricardo Semler is undoubtedly the source for transforming a traditional, manager-layered company into an organisation where employees are given complete freedom. Both in how they operate to meet the vision and, beyond that, financial autonomy. 

Stripping away the layers

Semler’s 1993 book Maverick!:The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace details how unnecessary layers of management are. 

In their case, stifling performance and fortifying division and silos that do not work together for shared outcomes. We have all experienced that kind of turf war inside larger and even smaller corporate organisations. 

Self-managed organisations are not a new phenomenon. Before the mechanistic industrial age, craftspeople banded together in projects to work together often without supervision.

Purposeful work may seem elusive to many, but with the removal of layers of bureaucracy it can move closer, more sharply into focus and more acutely felt.

What’s clear is that when organisations are up against massive change, competitors, budget cuts, digital innovation, shifting stakeholder demand and need, just relying on management practice is proving more and more problematic.

All hands on deck

Research from INSEAD Professor Michael Y Lee shows that in turbulent times, less hierarchical companies fare better than those that are rigidly hierarchical.

So perhaps the writing is on the wall that as turbulence becomes a normative state of operation, so will the hierarchy strain and be replaced by more participatory and self-managed systems. So that all hands are tending to our future success.

And all hearts are aligned to the more noble outcomes we need to pursue.

We hope that the examples given throughout this three-part series have provided you with some curiosities and tangible applications to take back to your team. 

Pockets of self-management can certainly create ripples of co-created change.

At PTHR. our one rule is “we will be self-managed”. That’s all you might need to effect a change that could outlast bureaucracy and strengthen your participative governance.

All for one, and one for all.

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