Self-management, the puberty pimple of modernity.

Why self-management is a transient phenomenon, a system-psychological analysis.

In February 2015, VPRO’s TV show “Tegenlicht” expressed a long-felt societal desire: The End of the Manager. It seemed like the starting shot for self-management to become a hit in the Netherlands. The boost seemed to be a revival of a gently slumbering trend dating from the end of the 1970s: sociotechnology, as it was then called.

After a lot of initial engagement with self-management, many organizations are now backtracking, sometimes explicitly, but also quietly. Is this a great disillusionment or are we just “sadder but wiser”?

Where does the desire for self-management come from?

In a psychological sense, the self-management trend is a growth-related impulse or defensive reaction by people working in a system that they feel is too tight or frustrating. Liberation through self-management is an echo of what we call early childhood puberty and later adolescence. This is not meant ironically: in organizations, just as in humans, adolescence is a necessary phase towards individuation. C.G.Jung described individuation as the development of the “I” and the realization that others are different. That realization is very important and very necessary. As long as it doesn’t stop there, because it isonly a transition phase.

Just as with adolescence, self-management is better at knowing what it doesn’t want than what it does want. What it doesn’t want is a manager, and certainly not a “boss”. And what it does want, well ……, behold the countless training courses to make self-management really work! What is also striking is that the trend has a somewhat political and ideological twist. It has the appropriate light pathos of the proponents and their weary glances at the sceptics. The phenomenon occurs mainly in the public domain. The introduction of self-management is rarely preceded by very exhaustive diagnoses, and the decision to abolish the manager gives a wonderful, politically correct feeling. Oh, and by the way, we had to cut back anyway…..

We also recognize that adolescent nature in the concept itself: until recently the “self” was so promising, now it is becoming increasingly controversial. Spirituality and modern psychology, but also recent brain research, are giving more and more signals that the self is an illusion: a useful illusion perhaps, but an illusion none-the-less. And with the notion of “management” behind it, does it still have that perky character of the terrible-twos (Do it myself!)?

Doesn’t anyone who knows the complexity of organizations from the inside, know that in practice it is not about self-management but about network dependence and context awareness, and about an emerging future? What do you mean “self” – “management”?

I do not disagree that there is a phenomenon that is often confused with self-management: many organizations work in a state of ever-increasing complexity. They work in a turbulent force field with more and more contradictions and interdependencies, with “wicked problems”. A rigid framework does not work well in that environment. In such a context we must leave more room for individual intelligence and creativity, and give more confidence to professionals.

Self-management is about autonomy for the individual employee. It is clear that a certain degree of autonomy increases a sense of happiness in most social contexts in which we live and work. But what is autonomy?

Autonomy requires a certain level of maturity. A maturity in which I recognise that the “I” is no more than a set of my own opinions about what reality is, or how I think reality should actually be. With this autonomy, I am no longer sensitive to, for example, hierarchy. I can see that hierarchy is just a form of order, and I judge that order merely on its usefulness in achieving the goals of the organization in which I work.

In that state of awareness, I know what I am capable of and what not. I don’t always have to speak up during every participatory discussion; if everything has already been said, I can also remain silent. I contribute to the best of my ability, but I can also set limits. For example, I do not allow myself to be simply dragged into a culture of anxiety. In addition to my own assignments, I also feel some responsibility for the whole.

Adult autonomy means acting from the realization that there is an order, a system that we are part of, in a very banal way, as part of our every-day life. Realising that there is an order of family connections, organizational relationships, material resources and personal qualities that create a reality in which I have to live. This does not mean that there are no more emancipatory movements that justify my support. It does mean that I understand where malleability and social engineering starts and where they end. And it means that I know the difference between synchronicity and an individual hobby-horse or belief.

When I reconcile myself with that order, I experience maximum autonomy, maximum freedom.

Self-management is a (public) organization trend, full of the romantic images of adolescence; probably necessary for maturing, but usually of a temporary nature. Adult autonomy is free and sustainable. Self-management is a concept that we therefore only need before our evolution to adult autonomy, after which it loses its meaning.