Karin Tenelius

Expected turbulence in self-managed organizations

07 Apr 2021   |   Leadership

Karin Tenelius

Expected turbulence in self-managed organizations

07 Apr 2021   |   Leadership

You probably think you are empowering your employees and are expecting them to take more ownership and accountability.

But the thing in their way may be you, or another manager.

Karin Tenelius has been guiding companies into the art of self-management for 20 years and brings us up to speed.


We are more hierarchical than we think

Karin says that even in Sweden, where governments and organizations are very democratic, they still have a strong hierarchical dynamic to them. No matter how hard they try to shake it, there’s a clear power distance that creates friction and drag in the organization.

Traditional management involves being present. Broadcasting, guiding, organizing, talking, setting vision, etc.

Self-management is removing most of these things and putting any leaders in the background (or removing them altogether). In a self-managed organization, everyone is accountable to each other and shares authority to achieve a mandate. Leaders are silent and don’t get in the way of others.

Karin uses the analogy of a parent-child relationship to describe most of what goes on in corporations. Managers create dependencies on themselves and the “child” is never put in situations where they need to grow up.

A good question to ask is if your team members have an obedience mindset. Are they doing their work in order to please the boss, or because they believe in it?


Starting with self-management

This is not something that you can flip a switch and immediately turn on tomorrow. You need to prepare your organization for self-management. Karin says a good place to start is with a small pilot project. Don’t appoint a leader for the project. Just assemble the right people and give them the mandate and let them organize themselves.

Karin says it takes a lot of courage for leaders to turn over these responsibilities because it requires everyone to be more honest and open about their shortcomings and fears.


Turbulence will come

As any company experiments with self-management, they will find periods of turbulence. Karin uses this imagery intentionally. The pilot of the plane knows what turbulence feels like and expects it. However, people on their first trip might freak out and expect to crash at any moment. But stable leaders can trust the process and know that clearer skies are coming.



Tuff Leadership Training

Karin on LinkedIn


Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Karin Tenelius. She is the CEO of Tuff Leadership Training and she’s also the co-author of ‘Mooseheads on the Table’. Hi, Karin, how are you? 

Yeah, hi. I’m really good today.


Excellent. I love the topic of the book. It’s just a crazy title. So, we’ll get into that a little bit more later on. But let’s start off with your capture question to confirm your humanity with us here today. I want to ask you this question, what is your favorite weather season? You’re in Sweden. So, tell me about Sweden. What’s the best season in Sweden?

Well, of course, the summer because it’s so cold in the winter. But my favorite month is August because then everything is starting up again and you become creative.


Wow. Yeah. I like that. Do you have, in Sweden now I’m guessing you have those really long days in the summer with lots of sunlight. Is that true?

Yes, we have the midnight sun even up north, where the sun never sets.


Man, that’s fantastic. It’s always hard. Here, we just have a little bit of that effect. We go to about nine or 10 pm with sunlight. But it’s hard. I have kids at home. So, to convince them to go to sleep is a challenge at those ages.

Yeah, really.


Well, great. You are well versed and one of the leading experts in the concept of self-management. It’s something that we’ve dabbled in, trying to understand and explain to our audience about what that means. Could you just give us, what’s your favorite definition of when people talk about self-management? What does that mean?

Well, to me, it means to give away all the authority and the mandate to employees or a team and not give it halfway or having them helping out but give the whole task to a team. And if you can, also take away managers.


When you tell that to people, what’s their usual reaction, like, how low does the jaw drop when you say get rid of managers?

Yes. Still, many are shocked. But that’s not at all in comparison to when I started to talk about this 25-30 years ago. Then they sort of throw tomatoes at me.


Yeah. Excellent. So, when you’re talking about giving authority, I think a lot of people will say, ‘Well, I’m already doing that. I already try to make people accountable for what they do. And they have so much authority.’ But I think we’re fooling ourselves a lot of times in thinking that we’re self-managed. So, what’s the often, the chasm, that people need to cross in this understanding?

Yes. So, in the Western world, working world, we have known coaching, leadership and involving leadership for many, many, many years now. And we think because we read about it, we took courses in it, we think, since we know it in theory, we think we do it. But no managers that I meet, they don’t do what they think they’re doing. So, it’s a discrepancy between what you think you’re doing and what you actually are doing. So, it’s a blind spot. And here in Sweden, of course, we have the world’s most democratic leadership style, very involving, very consensus driven. But nevertheless, we have this hierarchical dynamic that we are blind to.


So, give me an example of a manager who thinks they’re being empowering to the people on their team versus one who’s actually practicing self-management and has really given over all that responsibility.

Yes. So, the traditional manager role involves a lot of broadcasting, and sending, and talking, and ‘set out the vision’, and give instructions, and have the answers and know everything. So, it’s a lot of talking, one can say. And if you have a self-management team, you’re in the background. You’re facilitating, you’re asking questions, you’re silent, and you are not in the way for your team.


So, you’re saying that someone who’s in a self-managed organization, and even I guess there’ll be levels of self-management, of course, of different things. Because, like you said that in some elements, there are no managers at all. That’s there. So maybe you can help us understand that first before we go further. What’s the kind of spectrum that you see about self-management?

Yes, so I often talk about self-management in terms of principles, like organizing principles. So self-management can look very different in different organizations. Some have managers, but they have different roles, which is more supporting and empowering than steering and directing. And some organizations, they took away the managers and it’s just team based, like the Dutch organization, Buurtzorg, with the nurses. Fourteen thousand nurses with no managers, for instance. But it can look differently. The key thing here is the principles like authority and mandate that is distributed, for instance.


So, let’s look at somebody who, they feel like they have a fairly democratic system in their organization at this point. They let people make their own decisions. They give some responsibility out there. And they hear about self-management and say, ‘This is really great. I want to pursue this more.’ What are the things? I’m assuming you can’t just say, ‘Okay, tomorrow, we’re going to become self-managed. Everyone’s self-managed, and we’re all done.’ So, what are the steps to prepare the ground, so to speak, to create an environment that’s good for self-management?

Yes. So, the first step is to grasp what it is and what it’s not. And many people get a picture that’s not true. And the picture often is, ‘Then that is a solid concept. There is a given way. It’s like a given process’, which is not. So, it’s more like grasping the principles and get a common view. If you’re a management team in a company, you should know what you’re talking about and not have 12 different ideas in your head. So, talk about it and align what it means. And you can do that by listening to others that have done it and sort of educate yourself. 

And then the key thing is to really give away the authority, to actually place the mandate in the teams. A good way to start, if you’re a bigger organization, is to start in a pilot project, the IT. Some IT team that is common, familiar with Agile principles or so and just extend it from there. What is really crucial, and that’s really my expertise, that is that I’ve learned by failing, that the working climate, I mean, the atmosphere, the communication, that is really key that that works. Because in a traditional organization that is not that important that it is here. 

So, it’s really like a higher level of collaboration with the people involved. And therefore, collaboration requires a higher level of communication, a higher level of trust, a higher level of acceptance. And those factors are sort of forming a well-developed atmosphere of feedback culture, straightforward communication, resolving misunderstandings, and so on. And that is also easy to say that we should have such a culture, but really hard to actually make one. It takes a lot of courage, patience, and for key people, they have to be brave and lead the way here and show their weakness and be human really.


Yeah. What are some things, like, if a company came to you and said, ‘Hey, we really want to do this. We believe in the idea of self-management.’ You mentioned collaboration, feedback, how you handle misunderstandings. What are some of the other things that you would look at in terms of how that company functions and maybe say, ‘Well, first address these issues and then you’ll have that climate ready for self-management.’ Are there any other things you would look at?

Yeah, just one more thing, and then it’s the manager’s way of leading. So, you have to sort of be aware that for management and managers to shift their leadership to be empowering and involving, facilitating management, or leading actually, that is really not easy. That involves training the managers in another mindset, in another way of relating to the teams. One can say that traditional leadership resembles the relationship between a parent and a child in a way. And what it takes is to confront that for managers, to confront that they are sort of being a bit of a parent in their fashion and replace that to something that is much more empowering. And that is more like equal passive, not driving more, a lot of listening involved. And that is a big, big step for them to change. So, I would say, if you can, it’s easier to take away managers because that makes the road shorter to self-management.


Yeah. Is there another metaphor that you’d like to put in? Like if parent and child is what we’re at right now in a lot of traditional ideas, is there a better metaphor that you’d like to use?

Yeah, there’s like partner based or an adult to adult. Yeah. Like, no hierarchical dynamic. We are in this together. So, this hierarchical dynamic is taken away.


Let’s get into, we’re called The Digital Workplace, on this podcast. So, let’s bring in the digital element of this. Self-management is something you can practice whether you’re fully digital or not. But what are some of the advantages and the reasons why living in this digital age makes self-management so much more appealing to some people or so much more possible?

Well, it’s like, the new generations. It’s really natural for them to work like this. Because it takes, I mean, it sort of unleashes engagement and responsibility, creativity. And younger generations, at least in Sweden, we have sort of left the obedience paradigm in schools and so on. So, when students come to workplaces, they wouldn’t accept the traditional hierarchies anymore. So, it’s a very unnatural way for them to work. And of course, if you unleash engagement and responsibility, that sort of, that effect you get from that is more profitability, more efficiency, lower sick rate. You get lower staff turnover. You become attractive as a workplace, attractive for people to work there, and so on. So, it’s so many advantages.


Yeah. I like what you said about the impact of school, especially the conditioning that the children go through as they become teenagers and enter into the workforce. And I feel we’ll talk to a leader who has new hires, people in their early 20s, mid 20s or so, that have come through. I feel in the US, at least, we still have a little bit, or a pretty heavy obedience mindset when it comes to schooling. That’s there. So, if you have people who are used to that, and come in and say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to work. You tell me, what am I supposed to do.’ And you say, ‘You do what you think you’re supposed to do. Here’s the goal.’ What’s the challenge of working with somebody like that, young person, or old person, who is so used to that obedience mindset? How do you get them to unlock their potential?

Yeah, again, the key here is the managers. Because if the manager starts to relate to them in another way, they will step in and take their place, sort of. But when we work with big organizations, we work with the managers and they are the most difficult to shift. And then we work with the co-workers, and that doesn’t take so long. And for them, the challenge is to get that they have authority and to sort of step into the game. And that takes much less than it takes to shift the managers.


Yeah, that was going to be another question. Who struggles more with this? And it sounds like you’re saying the managers, to give up that responsibility, struggle more than the people who are trying to figure out what it means to have it.

Definitely, definitely.


Interesting. Well, you said, you’ve been at this for 20 or 30 years, talking about this, and you mentioned some ‘learning by failing’ as well before. So, tell me some ways that your understanding of self-management has, I don’t know if ‘matured’ is the right thing, but changed over the years, and what you’re seeing is true now that maybe you didn’t think was true 20-30 years ago.

Yeah. So, my source of inspiration was Ricardo Semler from Brazil, and I read his book very early. About 20 years ago, I got the opportunity to try out his ideas in a small hotel company. And this was in 1999. And I saw this effect that was totally mind blowing. And then I took it as a CEO in small companies and educated myself in how to relate to groups to have this happen, this self-management. Very early I started to talk about this from stages. But as I said before, it was hard. Because people were laughing, ridiculing me, almost taking out tomatoes and throwing at me. So, I stopped that. And I built ‘Tuff Leadership Training’ instead. And also bought some companies and transformed them to become self-managed to gain proofs and evidence that this worked.

Then the Agile wave came, like, eight, nine years ago. And then ‘Reinventing Organizations’, the book, which was really sort of impacting the whole world, although we’re just in the beginning. So, I would not have dreamed of seeing this that we see now because I counted that this won’t happen in my lifetime. So, it went quicker than I thought. But still, I mean, yesterday, I led a Swedish webinar here with people from big organization and I interviewed a guy from a self-managed company, it would be 700. And people were shocked because they haven’t heard about it. So, it’s still under the radar. So, that’s how it looks. 


Yeah. And I feel like it’s an idea whose time has come. It seems like right now. Like you said, it’s been a concept. For decades and decades, it’s been around. But only recently are people really starting to experiment with it and to get through to things. What do you think is next? Do you think self-management, like in the same way that remote work was, was also kind of an idea that was pretty much under the radar, there were a few companies out there that were completely remote, completely distributed, did great, great model. But then all of a sudden, this one thing happened in the world with Coronavirus, and now everyone was exposed to it. Is there a potential for a significant thing like that to happen with self-management as well?


Yes, I think that the Corona situation impacts the self-management development because people now have to take responsibility for getting their work done. So, in a way, that sort of reinforces everything. And it’s going to be so interesting to see what happens if we come back to our offices and how the managers will deal with this when people have been sort of self-managed at home. Are they going to impose all the control again or not? So, I think, yeah, I think it was really like in the past for this, but who knows. 


Yeah, we will see. Hopefully, it does take off in a bigger way. Tell us a little bit about the new book, ‘Mooseheads on the Table’. What’s unique about this book and what’s the new perspective that you’re bringing?

Yeah, so the book is the stories, the earliest stories of my trying to give the authority to teams. And the Moosehead metaphor is really because I saw that the atmosphere and the working climate was so important. So, I invented tools to shift working climates from toxic and ‘not-working’ climate like ‘we and them’ culture, silence, mistrust. So, it’s tough. We actually shift working climates from not-working to working in a very short way. And Mooseheads is a tool in that. And Mooseheads, it’s the Swedish version, really, of the elephant in the room. 

By then, 20 years ago, we didn’t have that saying. We didn’t import it yet but knew about it in Sweden. But we had heard it abroad. So, we transformed that saying to Mooseheads. So, it’s Mooseheads lying on the table and nobody’s talking about it. And it could be like, ‘We have no trust for the managers. Is something weird going on that we can’t talk about?’ So Mooseheads is a way to talk about the infected things and the things that we have difficulties to discuss in a team. And of course, that has a grip on everything. That destroys efficiency.


Yeah. I love it. And it’s just such an exciting topic to get into and to learn more about. Let’s close with this question. What do you feel is the hardest part of self-management that most people don’t expect? Like after they’re into it for the first few years of getting through it and then they hit a roadblock later on. What’s something that people tend to not expect to happen but it’s actually a very difficult thing to get over?

I think, to really do it fully, that involves a time of turbulence. Not chaos, I wouldn’t say chaos, but turbulence. And people relate to turbulence as something wrong. It’s like a process, a change process. And real change processes are really painful because it’s a lot of insecurity, and companies hate insecurity. They hate insecurity. So, they don’t calculate with that period and they have a really hard way, a hard time to trust that this is going to work in the other end. But in the other end, things will work. But it’s no way around this period of turbulence. So, that’s a really big challenge that I can see. And the risk then is that they say, ‘Stop. This doesn’t work.’ And then go back.


Yeah. Have you worked with a lot of companies that are like that, that get to that turbulent time and they just have to give up on it?

Not giving up but we always find ourselves being sort of guides in that, to have them trusted, trusted in the thing that’s happening now, it’s perfect. Because we have the experience of knowing that this will be good. But they become scared. So, we have to sort of comfort the managers and the management in that process.


Yeah. I think that word turbulence is such a perfect imagery, because like if you’re flying in a plane and you’re 30,000 feet in the air and you feel that turbulence and if it’s your very first time in the plane, you’re freaking out. Because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to crash.’ Whereas the pilot knows we’re not going to crash. It may be a little rocky, but we’re still going to get to where we’re going. It’ll get better. We’ll be able to get over this. There are tools we can do. But all you can think about in the back of your head is, ‘What if we die? It’s going to be horrible here.

That’s a really good metaphor. That’s exactly how it is.


Excellent. Well, Karin, where can people go if they want to learn more about your work and self-management in general?

They can go to our website, tuffleadershiptraining.com. And they can also add me on LinkedIn, karintenelius.


Fantastic. Well, you have a lot of great resources. We expect to come back to you as we continue to try to expose our audience to new ideas. Hopefully, self-management doesn’t become a new idea. It just becomes a regular idea very soon that people can implement but we look forward to staying in touch with you and talking to you again soon and continuing this discussion.

Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity.

Inspired by studying service management, reading books by Ricardo Semler, Karin Tenelius developed a radical, practical way of developing, organizing and lead companies and workplaces that allow groups of employees to impact and take charge of the business they are involved in. This creates extraordinary results. She is the founder of Tuff Ledarskapsträning (Tuff leadership Training), where managers are trained in the skills needed to lead in a more involving way.

Subscribe to The Digital Workplace

Join the journey to a better future of work