You're Behaving Like A Child: How We Were Never Taught To Self-Manage

JonBarnes
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- 6 min read

The idea of self-management tends to be received with both interest and cynicism. Amongst the varied reactions, there is one recurring doubt that I hear time and time again. That doubt is deep. That doubt, is trust.

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To many leaders, the idea that a team can manage itself is absurd. ‘How can a team be effective without a single leader?’ ‘Won’t people slack off?’ ‘We don’t have the right people in the team, they won’t perform.’

These doubts can only come from the mind of somebody who is the product of this very system. The system I’m talking about isn’t just work. The system I’m talking about goes back until the age of about 4 or 5 years old. That system is school.

Self-managed children

A couple of years ago, my wife, 7 year old son and I decided to go on an adventure to a jungle in Costa Rica. We went to a democratic school called Casa Sula (this beautiful video of the school will inspire you). It changed our lives, helped our son grow, and transformed my view about adults and organisations.

The school doesn’t have teachers it has guides. They are there to create the space within which the children grow. Like gardeners for humans.

The rules are partly created by the children in their Monday morning democratic council meeting. They also vote for each to help with lunch, numbers games, river walks and other activities.

There is no curriculum, other than the child’s own internal compass and a diverse range of people and activities to play and experiment with.

If we were all brought up like this, we wouldn't tolerate anything less than a democratic and autonomous workplace as adults.

Autonomy theft

When we took our son to his first days at school, I had one observation that has impacted me ever since. I noticed that only a few years of directive schooling had made it difficult for him to take decisions. Even small ones. What to wear (in the UK kids wear uniforms)? Which locker to put his bag in? How to approach a certain activity? How to choose which activity to do? He froze making these little decisions. It was hard to watch. I felt scared for him.

Then, after only a matter of days, we noticed a change. We noticed him coming home and taking food from the fridge himself. Taking a sharp kitchen knife and very safely cutting his own apple for a snack. His tone of voice became more calm. His eye contact with adults became more direct. He started suggesting activities for us all to do and started playing autonomously. Like he was getting to know himself. He started reading more and more (without ever being told to). But perhaps most amazingly, he started walking differently. He started standing straight with his shoulders back. He started, well, feeling good in his skin.

Adults without autonomy

This is where I had an epiphany about adults and why I couldn't understood why leaders didn’t trust teams to self-manage. It’s because we were never allowed to manage ourselves as kids. We’re trained to be directed, not in self-directing. From our first days at school we were told what to wear, where to sit, even when to pee! Our timetables were dictated to us. The topics we did were imposed on us. Our grades defined us. I remember as a teenager getting the results back from a maths exam. I got every calculation correct but got a really poor grade. When I asked the teacher to explain why he said: ‘You got the results correct, but the way you did it was wrong’.

In the weekend pedagogy workshops my wife and I took part in, the inspiring guides at Casa Sula explained this bluntly. They said that ‘we steal children’s autonomy’. I realised that every moment where the system did this, it took away an opportunity for us to learn how to learn. We are the products of this system. We didn't get the opportunity to think for ourselves, to manage and know ourselves. In the absence of autonomy, we instead learned to follow ‘the way things are done around here’.

The results are organisations that have what I call ‘Mummy & Daddy’ cultures (read “From Patriarchy To Partnership” by Lisa Gill for more on this). Where the team always looks for permission and needs the manager to tell them what to do. This is slow, disengaging and not scalable. The manager, also the product of this system, only knows one way to manage: to tell people how things are done (according to them). Their only role model for leadership was an autocratic system. This is a recipe for low creativity and no innovation.

There is a provocative idea in child-led education circles that goes something like this: if a teacher realised that children can learn more without them they would be out of a job. The same might apply to managers. We can have a strong desire to be needed, not realising that teams could grow far more if they, like the children at Casa Sula, were guided, not managed.

So how to apply this to an organisation?

  • “Adults, don’t interfere!” This was the only rule written on the walls at Casa Sula. We should have a ‘Managers, don’t interfere!’ sign in organisations.
  • “[Children] are so much more capable than most adults realize.” These words from the famous educational revolutionary John Holt, apply to our teams. (Source: Holt, John. Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling.)
  • Guide, don't manage: The role of guides at Casa Sula is to observe and iterate. To see how children behave and introduce tiny modifications to guide help them grow. Often, to take barriers to learning away. Our roles as leaders is the same. To help people learn how to learn.

In the world of self-managed organisations, we use the word ‘autonomy’ a lot. I feel sad, even angry realising this was taken from me so young. But now I know this, I am more compassionate towards myself and others. I see we are almost all the products of hierarchical schools.

Being organisational activists requires us to unlearn this conditioning. To replace old stories with new ones based on a deeper understanding of how humans actually operate when given genuine autonomy. Our greatest opportunity is to give that autonomy back.


This guest blog is written by Jon Barnes. Jon is a consultant helping companies and teams to self-organise. He is the author of two books Democracy Squared and Tech-Monopolies and has spoken at TEDx about digital democracy and democratic education. You can find out more about him, watch his talks, and explore his Online Course for Organisational Activists on his website at http://jonbarnes.me

JonBarnes
Written by JonBarnes
7 months ago

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Replies (14)

Deborah

Deborah

Very insightful article, thank you Jon. Scary how much resonated with me. I went to a private school in the UK til age of 11y then we moved to Switzerland where I was so much happier. We didn’t have to wear school uniforms and individuality was encouraged. It’s that balance between being autonomous and yet cultivating that team spirit, that sense of community. The manager’s role needs to be re-defined or entirely removed but there are still so many trust issues at Senior Management level that micro-management remains Omni-present.

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Claudia

Claudia

Thank you for this beautiful article! Makes me thinking about how "we" learn in my company's context. We have started "our way of new learning" but still have a lot of work to do regarding how our management roles understand and foster this aspect. I recognize a gap in the context of "what's in for me", so the (remuneration/reward)system needs to be adapted very fast too.

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Terry

Terry

Thank you, Jon.

I've just finished a book called "Reinventing the C-Suite," due to be published in February. I tried nit to make it an attack on executives (hard though that was), and in the final chapter, I tried to encourage executives to consider democratic organizations, self-managed teams, and indeed self-organizing businesses. (much like the Casa Sula).

After reading your article, I realized that my chapter was like talking to children:- "don't be frightened, little boy, it'll be alright if you just try.." Sad really. Once the book is published, I'm anticipating a tantrum or two.

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Terry again

Terry again

Just a comment on my comment. There's an apparently sexist statement in there: "little boy." But it was intentional: 70% of today's executives are white, male, and between 50 and 65. This makes the executive team an albocracy (white), gerontocracy (old), and andocracy (male), - I call them WOMs. But if you think about it, what life-experience behaviors and attitudes do they bring to their organizations? Does autonomy even enter their heads (except for themselves)?

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John

John

Great post & insights. See almost any good Montessori school for teaching "guides" and unstructured, hands on, experiential learning. Because so much curriculum is now "mandated" at the state or federal level (at least in the US), there are certainly learning goals, but how the student gets there is very much left in their own hands and guided by staff.

I wish I'd been more aware of this when my kids were in school. Went to a great school that embraced some facets of this, but not enough.

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Pim

Pim

Super powerful article, Jon. Beautiful way to put this feeling/sense that many people have into words.

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Carol

Carol

An excellent piece that I have already shared to those who I consider need enlightening. I'm sure it will be a go-to text for me.
Thank you Jon.

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Amaranatho

Amaranatho

Thanks for the post. All my experience of working now as mindfulness based executive coach and supporting next stage organisation is based on over 20 years of working with young people and children mostly in the way this article says. I know this works both with children and executives/ and teams.

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Henriette

Henriette

Thx, Jon. Really insightful and makes me think about what else I can adapt in my Leadership role 🙏

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Corinna

Corinna

Thanks for your article, Jon! My intuition some ten years ago lead me to co-found a free alternative school in Cologne - for our two girls and other children. My intention back then was to allow them to really learn (and not only learn by heart) what they want to learn. On their learning journey, they had the freedom to take their own decisions every single day and I am sure they learned a lot about decision-making and responsibility and teams and relationships and ... Many times I have been thinking about the growing value of the abilities our girls builded up - and I am working on transforming the attitudes and principles of our school into the world of business, organizations and personal development.

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