The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


13 September 2021| Organizational Constellations

Self-regulating teams and autonomy

More and more companies decide to change their organizational structure. They go from the classic top-down hierarchy to a ‘leaner organization’, with self-regulating teams.

One of the ideas behind this change is to be more adaptive to the fast-changing market, to be more ‘lean and mean’. Being flexible in this turbulent economy is important, as in the end it’s all about eat or be eaten.

Another reason for striving towards becoming a self-regulating company, or team, is to cut costs. If we cut out some management layers, shuffle people around a bit, it will benefit the employees in the end. They can develop themselves, take on responsibility, do not have to fight with the top-down bureaucratic rules and work from their intrinsic motivation and autonomy. Let’s work bottom-up.

The idea is great. Reality is different.

Before we go into that, I would like to mention the Lucas Stevens’ CAR model. By doing a lot of research he found out that we have three primary needs to achieve growth and motivation: Relationship, Competence and Autonomy. The simple explanation is that if there’s a shortage in one of these needs, it influences our motivation and causes our growth to stagnate; and vice versa.

Looking at a self-regulating team, you could say that there are lots of opportunities to develop your competence and nourish the relationship. That you have the possibility to function autonomously. All the ingredients are ticking the right boxes.

Unfortunately, it isn’t like that.

Last week I saw another example of the self-regulating iceberg underneath the surface.

Firstly, if you take away a management layer (in a team that has worked top-down for many years), this creates a gap. And the first thing that happens, is that employees will fill this gap. Someone closes the circle, someone now becomes the informal leader, and someone else decides (top-down) that he now is a ‘kind of coordinator’. With the same salary as his colleagues.

What does the herd do? It is natural that they revert back to an alpha structure. Having an informal leader is always better than having no leader at all. Well, there probably is a leader, but usually that is someone who’s too far away (especially in plus-size organizations). If I compare it to a family system: first you had your father or mother who would accompany you in daily life, now it’s the friend of the neighbour who has three other families to look after.

So, the best option to ensure continuation is to work with an informal leader, but it doesn’t give you the comfort and safety conditions which are essential for your well-being.

Secondly, the functional order changes.

In a systemic context, we often talk about ‘agens’ and ‘communio’. The agens in an organization (it comes from the word ‘agere’, which means ‘to do’) has the job of maintaining contact with the outside world, to take care of the financials which are needed to exist, and most of all to create the framework, the setting for the internal organization.

The communio has a more supportive task, for instance in ICT or facility management, or the laboratories in the hospital. They make sure that the well-being of the group as a whole and the individual parts is looked after. They also provide the conditions for the core functions (such as the surgeons in the hospital, or the teacher in the school). The agens is not better than the communio, or the other way around. All functions are equally important, but there is just an order.

If the order in these functions is clear, a team can flourish. If it’s not clear, there will be a lot of noise: resistance, competition, battle mentality, etc.

If you take out the management layer, you take out the agens.

What is left? A confused team which longs for clarity, structure and an agens.

You cannot do without.

Does this mean you have to stick to top-down management? No, but there are more colours on the palette.

Before I mention one of these colours, there is the last important element: autonomy.

The ultimate idea is ‘let’s work from bottom-up’. But there’s a paradox. There’s no bottom-up anymore.

The decision for a reorganization is taken top-down. All the autonomy that is left, is taken away by re-shuffling and re-ordering, without acknowledging the rules of the herd.

Autonomy has silently left the building. A primary need is carelessly lost.

There is still loyalty. Most people continue to work tirelessly, but now there’s a shortage in one of the primary needs, which, as we’ve seen earlier, affects growth and motivation. And it will also influence burnout rates, production, culture, and the health of the company itself.

So, what to do? Is the concept of self-regulating teams and organizations reached a dead end? Should we send it to the moon?

I don’t think so. But what we do have to take into account, is the longing for a leader. To be autonomous in an organization, we need an agens. We need a mom or dad. And the best parents are the ones that are simply there. They do by not doing. They allow us to grow. To become an autonomous, self-regulating human being.

Maaike van der Heiden

September 2021

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