The switch to a MacBook has almost erased my memory of blue screens and the slow process of rebooting. A fragile operating system is maddening. The same can be said of an organization’s operating system. A recent poll suggests almost 70% of American employees are not engaged at work. Most organizations still operate in a stifling command and control hierarchy designed for a bygone era. New models are emerging that can keep your environment from locking up.

One of my favorite Ted Talks is Dan Pink’s “The puzzle of motivation”. In it, Pink describes the shortcomings of the traditional carrots and sticks incentive models inherent in most legacy hierarchical-based organizations. Backed by social science research, Pink argues that most people thrive in solving complex problems when autonomy, mastery, and purpose are present. These three characteristics deserve a closer look:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

This resonates wholeheartedly with my experience as both an individual performer and as a member of teams driving large transformational change. Organizational structures that promote these qualities are able to attract and retain top performers. More often than not, however, companies rely upon a “climb the ladder” incentive structure loaded with performance bonuses – many of which are beyond the control of the individual. I’ve personally experienced and witnessed the unintended consequences that permeate the organizational psyche when it becomes clear the targets will not be met or the calculations result in insultingly low percentage payouts.

I link the carrots and sticks motivational tactics directly to the hierarchical command and control mindset prevalent in most traditional organization structures. The strict command hierarchy with decisions flowing down from the top to be executed at the lowest levels originated back in the Industrial Revolution. The mindless work was predictable, with execution and operational efficiencies created through rugged management oversight of an uneducated workforce.

In the Information Age we live in today, most staff level employees are bright, highly educated people often reporting to mid-level managers whose only advantage is years of service. In a work environment where purpose is not well articulated and decision-making is reserved for the management team, low employee engagement is a reflection of the disconnect from the heart to the tasks being performed. Not only does this demotivating culture sap productivity, it also creates a landscape of posturing, internal competition, and sabotage. Honing your skills at office politics becomes the way to grab attention and move into a position of influence. Getting work done becomes secondary.

With the business world moving faster than ever, new organizational models based on self-management principles are gaining traction. Established businesses and startups alike are seeking competitive advantage and purpose by tapping into the dormant energy and creativity that exists across the enterprise – not just in the executive suite. This self-management movement has become a legitimate alternative to the classic hierarchy structure. There are a number of self-management models being implemented, with some common characteristics:

  • Distributed decision-making
  • Self-directed work teams
  • Role clarity and employee empowerment
  • Flattened organization structure
  • Autonomy to fulfill purpose

Organizations that adopt self-management push managerial functions such as planning, coordinating, staffing, and governing out to all participants, effectively eliminating the manager positions. Decisions are made by those closest to the situation. The distributed responsibility with laser focus on purpose creates an environment where mastery is not only encouraged, it is expected. Accomplishment, pride, and joy become as meaningful as compensation. Rank is irrelevant and energy is directed in pursuit of achievement. Traditionally bureaucratic organizations such as governments and non-profits are exploring these models as ways to attract and retain talent not otherwise attainable due to monetary constraints.

Platforms like Holacracy – the most popular and complete self-management model in the market – bring structure to what many fear would be a chaotic, boss-less playground. The online shoe and clothing shop Zappos has adopted Holacracy. Are you willing to think about an alternative approach that attacks bureaucracy and empowers everyone?