The difference between supporting self-guidance and neglect is hard to pin down. Self-guidance is about the individual’s readiness to take ownership of their work. However, it is not limited to the individual themselves. How people are able to take control of their work and succeed in their goals is to a great extent related to the context of the work, and therefore to the organization’s leadership culture.

Neglect or supporting self-guidance?

Self-guidance is still referred to as a predominantly individual rather than communal issue. In my experience, self-guidance is often also seen in isolation from the context of a person’s work. When this is the case, positions taken by management can very easily become either-or questions about whether there is a need for supervisory work in today’s complex working environment. Instead of this black and white view, the focus should be on what kind of leadership is needed in different operating environments. What are the management skills that guide individuals’ work towards meaningful results, development, mastery and success? Although supervisors may think that giving plenty of leeway is a way of communicating their trust in an employee, some employees can interpret this as a lack of interest (Mäki 2018). Many employees then find themselves left alone with their problems, without a commonly determined direction or support with everyday problems.

To ensure a common purpose, leadership culture must handle contradictions

Closer examination of management culture reveals many tensions, and at the same time challenges our way of looking at leadership responsibilities. In a recent study, I describe leadership culture as “a condensing of expectations, deeds and interpretations” where there is a convergence of people’s perceptions of what direction should be taken and what means should be chosen for pursuing this goal (Mäki 2017). What could be a shared view is fragmented by the different interests, goals and experiences of the different actors in the organization. In addition, the complexity of everyday life in organizations brings an enormous amount of overlapping needs for change, projects and measures, and it is important to understand how all these are connected to each other. What is essential from the point of view of self-guidance is whether these interpretations and expectations can be reconciled. Are there enough shared points of attachment between different interpretations to help the individual more clearly see their role in achieving common goals? If the necessary conversations do not take place, there is a risk that different self-guided, skilled and creative individuals will each steer the ship in different directions. This will create inefficiency and frustration in everyday work, with the potential benefits of employees’ skills often being lost in the process.

Non-guidance is not an option

Self-guidance requires a mutually articulated and mutually understood perception of the situation and outlook on the future. It is also necessary in organizations to pay attention to the fact that appropriate parameters on autonomy must be set.  Responsibilities and authority must be discussed, and based on these discussions it is essential to establish a framework to guide the activities of the various parties towards a common goal. Such a framework must not be too tight-fitting, however, as experimentation and innovation require sufficient individual autonomy. Skillful management can build a bridge between conflicting interpretations and thereby create opportunities for self-guided, meaningful and productive work. As the management thinker Alf Rehn has written (2018), “Leadership is contradictory, so it is pretty self-evident that contradictory features are not an obstacle to successful management.” I personally think that tensions can even be beneficial; they contain plenty of development potential. A shared, constructive approach to contradictions can clarify people’s perception of the overall picture, thereby making them better prepared for self-guided work. This creates opportunities for smarter and more innovative ways of working.

As I see it, there is actually a demand for leadership in today’s working culture, which strongly emphasizes self-guidance. However, the division of leadership among multiple parties in a network- and matrix-led working culture requires a new approach to the division of labor regarding management. What is clear, though, is that self-guidance is not well served by a failure to lead.

Sources:

Mäki, Annastiina (2017) Johtajuuskulttuuri – toiveiden, tekojen ja tulkintojen tihentymä (Leadership culture: a condensation of hopes, actions and interpretations). Acta Wasaensia 371.

Mäki, Annastiina (2018) Keskijohdon paikka – johtajuuskulttuurin aktiivisena tekijänä vai sivustakatsojana (The place of middle management: an active factor in leadership culture or an onlooker). Työn tuuli 1/2018. pp. 55-65.

Rehn, Alf (2018) Johtajuuden ristiriidat (The contradictions of leadership). Jyväskylä: Docendo.