You Are Your Own Manager - for Better or Worse

It was my first big-time job, working as a Recruitment Director for a national non-profit, where I encountered Laura. She was a sweet southern belle and I was a blunt military brat. I anticipated a communication gap between us, but I believed in time, it would work itself out. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Over time the work got harder, the stakes got higher, and the communication rift continued to widen. I was so deathly afraid of failure that I refused to engage in authentic conversation about what I didn't know and couldn't do. I was inundated with pressure and focus on what I was doing, all the time getting worse and worse at my job. Predictably, the leash began to tighten.

My mental state was fast disintegrating and one day it broke when she asked me a simple question. "Did you send those emails last night that we talked about?" I felt my stomach start to churn and my cheeks go warm. No, of course I hadn't done that thing that we had talked about. But I blurted out, "Yes, I did." I flat-out lied. It was the first of many tiny lies I would tell in order to protect myself against judgment. Soon I found myself on a performance improvement plan that identified a core value where I was falling short -- lack of integrity. The scarlet letter of core values. I was heart-broken. And I blamed Laura. I told myself, "I have a bad manager who hates me." I told friends and family, "Our organization doesn't prepare managers very well. They promote people because they are good at their jobs, but they are terrible managers and I'm the unfortunate sucker who lost the manager lottery. She just doesn't know how to set me up for success." This was my narrative for months.

I was worn down to my bearings the next January when my mentor handed me an HBR article about Muhammad Ali, "Be Active in Your Own Rescue." It said the "story you tell yourself when you think you're down for the count--the story that gets you back on your feet--that's what counts the most." Around the same time I completed the Clifton's Strengths Finder where I identified five things I was good at. Something about these two things happening around the same time was a lightbulb moment for me. I had the vocabulary and the will to turn things around. When I went back to work, I made small changes. It started with actions like forcing myself to say, "I don't know what you are talking about; please tell me more," when I didn't understand something. Knowing my strengths and owning the story in my head created space so that I could be vulnerable at work without it totally wrecking my sense of self-worth. My life changed. I started to feel excited about going to work. I was seen as an authority in my area and I was adding value in ways that I had never before. Laura was still my manager, but things had gotten much better between us. And then it hit me. I realized that I had made Laura a villain by laying down and playing the victim. I learned it only takes one person to change a relationship. When you change, it demands that people interact with you in a different way. Each of us holds more power than we know.

This experience primed me for Holacracy. I remember sitting in the Holacracy taster workshop at Zappos amid concepts of self-management, and distributed authority and thinking, "this is what I've been trying to do!" That's how I ended up working on the Holacracy implementation team at Zappos. Our goal was to break down the traditional top-down management structures into hundreds of nested self-organizing circles. Each of these circles would have the authority to organize around their work in whatever way they thought was necessary. Ideally, when this shift happens employees will step into ownership of their roles and managers will be relieved from their supervisory, micromanaging roles. When we pitched Holacracy to the company we talked about empowerment, and ownership, and distributing management. There was a lot of excitement. Many came to me with stories about how they had been waiting for the opportunity to change things. When I showed up in the Holacracy meetings the next week, I noticed something strange. Silence. Awkwardness. Fear. Continued deference to the former manager. I left those first few weeks scratching my head. Of course there were a few early success stories. The few that already had a self-management skillset and just had to be set free from barriers or the rare manager that didn't care about control and the perception of authority who was glad to be free to work on other projects. But for the vast majority of employees, after a career of deferring their authority into the hands of a manager, that skill of self-management wasn't built or ready to deploy when Holacracy came into the picture.

When I asked the team what was holding them back, everyone had an elaborate story about the harm that would come to them if they spoke up. Their peers were going to laugh them out of the room, they were going to get fired, or someone was going to make their life miserable. It seemed the more unclear the operating norms and expectations were on a team, the more powerful these stories were.

Holacracy gives a forum to surface these misalignments, process them into some sort of change, and capture these changes in a transparent document for all to see. By doing this you are building clarity and limiting the crutch that many, including myself, have used time and again to justify inaction -- the story of the malicious manager, evil co-worker, or whomever else is standing in your way of making change. More than this, successful self-managers have to learn how to create purposeful stories that inspire us be greater versions of ourselves, more tolerant of failure, more secure in our value, more open to feedback.

The transition to Holacracy is a slow process. The mindset and ego-shifts that have to take place to properly leverage the new operating system take hold slowly. It took Zappos two and a half years to get 100 percent of the company up and running in Holacracy. Some of the companies I'm currently working with are looking at the same timeline and shaking their heads at the commitment it requires. But that's reality. It takes a long time to undo a lifetime of deferring your authority into someone else's hands. It takes a long time to face down the specter of the 'bad manager' and realize that you are your own manager, for better or worse. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort to create a safe enough space that people feel comfortable showing up authentically at work. In the end, Holacracy doesn't replace strong communication, emotional intelligence, or resilient relationships, but it's a critical piece of a larger movement toward a workplace that inspires people to "be active in their own rescue."

Alexis Gonzales-Black is a Holacracy expert and the co-founder of Thoughtful Org Partners, an organizational design firm. Follow her on Twitter.