The illusion of self-direction

Self-direction is a currently a hot trend within companies and organisations. At best, self-directed organisations agilely test new ways of working, foster communication that moves things forward and is respectful, base their operating culture on a coaching approach and give rise to innovations. The best experts will want to work for these kinds of companies because of their attractive employer and customer experiences.

However, many companies are not quite there yet in this respect.  I have visited many organisations and companies where I have been told that their operations are based on self-directed teams. These days I ask people what self-direction means within an organisation because organisations often seem to understand it as self-leadership. Self-direction is also often seen as working in teams without guidance or clear targets. Self-direction can also be a source of stress for many individuals or even create chaos within an organisation. The change may feel particularly dramatic within organisations that have grown used to a hierarchical leadership style.

Boldly updating the operating culture promotes success

Let us return to a meeting where I discussed the meaning of self-direction with a customer.  As a result of our discussion, we came to the conclusion that, within self-directed organisations, employees have clear targets, are able to work independently and proactively and have strong intrinsic motivation to do their work well, as well as a clear understanding of their own role. The members of the organisation must also receive support and advice from their supervisor in order to reach their goals. Supervisors are turning into coaches and advice-givers.

My customer mulled over our discussion and said that their organisation expects employees to be self-directed but that this often creates confusion due to the lack of clear targets. After clarifying the operating culture, it was important to support the organisation’s success as a self-directed organisation. Self-direction is fostered within an organisation through the bold and goal-oriented updating of the operating culture together with the personnel.

Self-direction is also about the skills of self-leadership

Self-leadership and self-direction go hand in hand. Self-leadership includes managing one’s own work, assuming responsibility for one’s work and motivation, as well as managing one’s mind. Supervisors have a key role in helping self-directed teams succeed in their work. A supervisor provides an example of self-leadership and continuous learning in daily work and stays by the team to support them. Supervisors need good facilitation and communication skills, a growth mindset, coaching skills and the ability to meet people as people.

The transition to a culture of self-direction requires boldness and perseverance from employees, supervisors and the management. What is needed is the courage to break out of one’s comfort zone and the ability to leave behind the familiar and comfortable ways of working. This leaves space for learning new things without the fear of embarrassing oneself. Real change is achieved through working together.

At Corporate Spirit, we carefully listen to our customers while updating our operations. We offer diverse expertise to help develop people and organisations. Self-direction and self-leadership is an essential part of how we work, and we would be happy to help make your organisational culture’s transition to a self-directed culture a success story.

The author is an experienced developer of organisations and leadership as well as a coach. At Corporate Spirit, she is responsible for the development of leadership and supervisory work.