In my recent conversation with good friend and inspiration Esther Derby [1], one of the things we got to talking about was exploring resistance and, in particular, why do we see people resisting self-organisation?

You’ve probably seen Dan Pink’s video on Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose [2] by now but if you haven’t I won’t tell anyone while you sneak off and have a quick watch…

Spoiler alert though, he claims that the desire to have control of our destiny is one of humanity’s prime drivers. He isn’t alone. Many other authors and academics cite things like self-actualisation [3] and other terms to that effect as a driver for us as a species.

So the fact that self-management is a key tenet of agile methodologies [4] and frameworks should resonate brilliantly with everyone right? Well, certainly those at “ground level” who are now being granted greater control over if not what they do then how they do it…right?

Self-management is not binary

Esther has always been a vocal advocate of people consciously discussing and agreeing their responsibilities between one another and was the first person to open my eyes to the possibility of management and those they manage openly negotiating the split of their responsibilities.

It’s not as simple as “I manage you” or “you manage yourself”.

I also read a good book by Richard J. Hackman [5] in which he explains different levels of team self-management and this stuck with me as a good starting point for discussing “what level of self-management are we ready for (both from a management “letting go” perspective, and a team “stepping up” perspective).

Autonomy is dependent upon the 3 C’s

This discussion about our readiness for autonomy is part of what I call the Three C’s of Autonomy (it has a nice ring right?).

Competence. We need to have both the technical and collaborative skills to be trusted to self-manage ourselves and our work. This is not just a simple case of skill acquisition, we also have to be perceived to be competent (and perceive each other to be competent).

Confidence. As well as having the confidence of others within the organisation, which in part comes from the perception (and demonstration) of competence, we need to have confidence as a team. This of course refers to confidence in our ability but also in the system. Do we have confidence that we will be allowed to manage ourselves and not be over-ruled or under-mined? Do we have confidence that there will be no overly-negative consequences if we try?

Conditions. The third C refers to the environment we are operating in. This can be structures, policies and procedures as well as the dynamics within and surrounding the team itself. If the team is competent and confident but is still not grasping the autonomy on offer then I encourage you to look at the wider conditions that the team is operating within.

This brings me to the next point.

Resistance is what we perceive

As Esther and her co-podcaster Viktor Cessan discuss very eloquently [6], what we see and label as resistance is often a logical and rational response to the conditions they find themselves in. Viewing this as “resistance” is rarely helpful or accurate but rather our interpretation.

Instead of viewing behaviour as “resistance”, instead ask yourself

What could be going on that would lead to the behaviour you are observing to be a logical, rational response?

Quite often the conversation about becoming more autonomous hasn’t been openly had. We haven’t looked at what the team are hoping for from this greater autonomy, what they are worried about and what they feel they need and what they are ready for.

The best leaders I have observed meet their people where they are now and collaboratively explore where they could move to next.









Leadership Coach Geoff Watts is the author of five best-selling and award-winning books on leadership and coaching, a TEDx and global keynote speaker. Geoff has a 20-year track record of helping people from all sorts of industries and domains develop greater personal and organisational agility and resilience.

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