Self-management and the lifelong con of conscientiousness

The great majority of large Finnish companies are moving toward more self-management in both organisational structures and ways of working. In many of these organisations the leadership is struggling with people’s resistance to change – at a minimum, managers are trying to figure out how to engage the most passive and least proactive employees into a new culture.

Self-management can make an organisation more effective

It is my job to train managers in how to have leadership conversations in a strong spirit of equality and coaching. I believe that stronger self-management can make an organisation more effective and agile while also making work more meaningful and satisfying.

Yet I cannot help putting myself in the position of a person who after a decades long career gets to hear (in a coaching and equality-infused spirit) that they are too passive and not proactive enough. That they are “the conscientious type who does what is required but who lacks will or ability to question status quo, improvise and innovate on their own accord”. That’s some humble pie I myself might gag on.

The thing is, that this person, like all of us, has since daycare grown up surrounded by structures rewarding us for conscientiously completing the tasks given to us. Questioning the status quo or improvising and innovating on your own accord was chastised or at least frowned upon. Even in arts class the subject and style were usually handed out to you. The first 15–20 years of our careers further amplified this pattern. I’m also willing to bet that the manager in the above example has – in the not-too-distant past – praised the very same employee in a feedback or development discussion for always completing all tasks diligently on time.

Everything I have been taught has been leading me astray

This sudden reversal of criteria for excellence is more than enough to cause a strong feeling of being a victim of an enormous con job – one of epic and lifelong dimensions. Everything I have been taught explicitly and between the lines, everything I have received praise for, has been leading me astray – now it is the very thing I am being admonished for and encouraged to let go of. Depending on your personality traits, feelings of shame, confusion or just being pissed off are bound to rise up.

It’s vital to understand that this state of affairs is not the manager’s or the employee’s fault. It is equally pointless to blame the CEO or the leadership gurus promoting self-management. We are looking at a structural and cultural conflict born out of a changing society and economy, a collective phenomenon.

If we see and deal with people’s trouble in adjusting to a new, self-managing culture and way of working as individuals’ problems, we are being unfair, narrow-minded and outright cruel. This can also risk many employees’ contributions getting lost in shame, confusion and them just being pissed off. A successful path towards a self-managing organisation requires that we collectively take on this structural phenomenon.

We need to be outspoken in the workplace about the fact that this move toward self-management requires us all to recognise and let go of a lifelong con job of conscientiousness. Some of us might be able to do that quietly by ourselves, but it will be easier for everyone when done together, out in the open.


Erik Bäckman is a partner, strategy director and leadership trainer at Miltton Helsinki.

For more information, please contact:

Erik Bäckman
Strategy Director
+358 40 562 8124