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

Jon Barnes
Written by Jon Barnes January 08, 2020

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.

You're behaving like a child: how we were never taught to self-manage
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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.

We should have a ‘Managers, don’t interfere!’ sign in organisations.
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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

Written by Jon Barnes
Jon Barnes
I'm an organisational consultant, working with organisations wanting to become more adaptive.
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