Leave it to Self: Unleash Engagement through Empowerment


When you do an internet search and look up employee engagement tips or employee engagement ideas what you’ll find is the majority, in fact almost all the topics are what executives can do or what managers can do. Very few ideas or suggestions look at what employees can do to drive engagement.

At a talk given by TalentMap’s President & Founder, Sean Fitzpatrick, when the audience was asked to vote digitally on where the onus resides – executives and senior leadership, direct managers, or employees – the overwhelming majority (63%) identified managers, followed by nearly one quarter (22%) of attendees giving senior leadership that responsibility, with the remaining 15% crediting employees.

Yet engagement is supposed to be a two-way street isn’t it?  An employee’s willingness to learn and get something from the organization; and a willingness to give back in exchange. The argument can be made that there should be a lot more emphasis on employee responsibility for their engagement.

That’s where novel thinking comes to the forefront with the likes of self-management.

Academics and business executives flock to companies like Morning Star, a U.S.-based tomato processing company with 400 to 2,400 employees (depending on the season) and a 30 to 40% share of the North American market, and Buurtzorg a Netherlands self-managing community care enterprise that’s grown from four to 9,000 nurses in eight years. It’s estimated the Dutch social security system could save $2 billion annually if the home care industry adopted Buurtzorg’s operations model.

In Harvard Business Review’s words, these pioneers of progress are “the world’s most creatively managed” companies.

What does self-management look like?

  • It’s about autonomy
  • Accountability
  • Peer collaboration
  • Transparency
  • Constant communication and feedback
  • Decision-making flows to any individual with the proficiency, willingness, passion or interest to oversee a project or situation
  • It’s about empowering employees and unleashing a passion, that in turn, triggers higher engagement and a genuine interest in the organization’s progress.

Daily self-management and employee work engagement, a study by Kimberley Breevaart, Arnold B. Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti describe self-management as meaning “employees manage and monitor their own behavior and are responsible for the decisions they make. It also means that employees, in the absence of any external control, make decisions that are less attractive, but more desirable (Manz & Sims, 1980). Self-management strategies help to structure the work environment, increase self-motivation, and facilitate behaviors that contribute to the achievement of performance standards (e.g., Hackman, 1986; Manz & Sims, 1980)”

Take the example of Morning Star, described in Frederic Laloux’s Strategy + Business article The Future of Management is Teal. The company’s workforce is largely blue collar. “No one has a boss. Employees negotiate and set individual responsibilities with their fellow workers. Everyone can spend the privately held company’s money without budgetary constraints. Nobody carries a title, and there are no promotions. Compensation at the largest tomato processor on the planet is peer-based” all of which translates into “strong growth, solid profits, extremely low worker turnover and an impressive record of innovation.”

When Rick Wartzman, a Forbes magazine contributor visited Morning Star, he discovered every employee must craft a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU) plan, “complete with performance metrics, that details how he or she will meet the personal mission statement that everyone is also required to write. Those associates most affected by this person’s work must then accept the CLOU before it goes into effect, a process that often involves many hours of give and take.”

For those shaking their heads and trembling in their management booties, set your anxieties aside. There’s always going to be a need for high-level thinking. The difference with self-management is there’s more time to spend thinking about those organization-wide matters because of not having to manage underlings. And when you consider that more employees are working remotely outside of conventional working hours and workplaces, the case for self-management is even stronger.  Buurtzorg is a good example on that score.

In the name of efficiency, in the early 1990s Danish home-nursing companies shackled their previously autonomous caregivers to office coordinators who assigned patients and planned itineraries daily, without consultation. There was no continuity. Patients would see a rotation of nurses, never getting the chance to bond with just one or two. Every nursing task had to be completed in a prescribed amount of time; nurses were monitored to make sure their home visits met time targets. It was a distressing scenario for patients and nurses alike. Buurtzorg was founded in 2006 with a focus on compassionate patient-centric care. Independent nursing teams of 10 to 12 were created to treat roughly 50 patients each. Laloux reports by 2014 Buurtzorg’s market share had reached 60%, its patients had one third fewer emergency hospital admissions than conventional nursing companies and hospital stays were shorter.

So why aren’t more organizations adopting the self-management paradigm to encourage more self-engagement? Because those meant to get behind it feel threatened or are asked to justify the concept in all kinds of iterations until the notion loses its luster and falls to the wayside. It’s not an easy shift.  But it’s possible.

Academics Breevaart, Bakker and Demerouti found “that self-management can be learned. Frayne and Geringer (2000) developed a training program in which groups of 15 trainees met with a trainer every week during a period of four weeks. Compared to the control group, the self-management training improved employees’ self-efficacy and job performance. Strikingly, job performance in the training group kept improving 12 months after finishing the training.”

Still need convincing? Here are a few more reasons in support of self-engagement through empowerment:

  • Self-management creates a richer environment for personal and leadership development, for progress and results, for creativity and enjoyment
  • It brings out team unity, openness and a sense of trust that comes from transparency
  • Gifts of direct feedback and peer 360 reviews are constant learning opportunities
  • People are more informed
  • There’s more buy-in
  • Better decision-making
  • The liberation that comes with owning work and being able to make decisions and changes naturally inspires people to show up mentally and pay attention to all aspects of their organization
  • There’s a greater sense of ownership, accomplishment, and pride in the organization’s success.

Subscribe to get updates

Related Posts