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Is your workplace relationship a bond or bondage?

How can you establish a sense of ownership at work?

What can we learn from ant colonies about organizing workplace relationships?

An unequal, power-driven hierarchy traps our workplace relationships, stifles uniqueness, impedes cooperation, and undermines healthy colleague interactions. Consequently, trust diminishes, and we lose a sense of ownership.

Mimic ant colonies self-organized decision-making to unravel workplace relationship enigmas. Imagine a work culture with constant collaboration. Decode self-organization intricacies to unlock secrets to a transformative work environment. Explore insights that prompt action to elevate professional relationships into masterpieces. Revolutionize and witness your workplace relationship metamorphosis with this invitation.

Hierarchical organizations feature a pyramid-like structure, with decisions flowing from top to bottom. This system poses challenges due to the power imbalance it creates, concentrating decision-making power at the top and leaving those at the bottom with limited autonomy.

Hierarchical structures lead to a stagnant work culture, stifling innovation and creativity. Employees with little decision-making power feel discouraged from taking risks and voicing their thoughts.

A stagnant work culture damages workplace relationships by hindering collaboration and cooperation among colleagues, leading to less ownership of work and trust erosion.

Since 2007, I have observed workplace relationships in various positions, from entry-level roles in a multinational company (just after my graduation) to investor roles.

Rigid hierarchies affected me. Convincing my manager of new ideas seems futile. The manager controls salary changes. Must I justify my performance? Does managing work relationships only involve rewarding top performers and disciplining underperformers? So much hierarchy turns everything competitive.

Colleagues pretend diligent by wearing professional masks. Like others, I felt detached from the company’s mission. The focus shifts to maximizing perks. Top management aims to maximize output while minimizing compensation. Power centralization favors a few, disadvantaging the majority.

As the team expanded in the organization I founded, our flat culture turned hierarchical. I now set salaries, duties, and reporting lines. I can foresee this shift to a strict, power-driven hierarchy will undermine trust and ownership.

I struggled to answer, “How to organize the team so everyone feels ownership and experiences freedom like I do?” I envisioned team members undertaking tasks they love, and growing personally while aligning with the organization’s mission, much like founders invest love and care into the organization.

I found no answers in the competitive corporate world with its power-hungry management, office politics, manipulative relationships, stress, and facade of professionalism. Pursuing my vision of transforming workplace relationships demotivated me. Common sense questioned, ‘Why does one need a boss to command if they know their job?’ and ‘Why should one dictate everyone’s earnings and tasks? I could make a mistake, depriving others of choice.’

I turned to nature to find answers about workplace relationships, exploring how group-living animals function and how insect swarms and fish schools decide.

Ant colonies have taught me a lot. Fascinating creatures, ants showcase self-organization. Despite their small size, ants create complex societies thriving on collaboration. They distribute tasks without instructions from a central authority. Each ant knows its role and responsibilities, resulting in a highly efficient, organized system.

Ant colonies exemplify ownership through common incidents:

External factors like rain, wind, or other elements cause holes in a massive anthill, leading to changes in temperature and air pressure inside. The nearest ant detects this and must decide whether its current task is more critical or if the new, sudden task takes precedence. This ant chooses to continue its work. The next ant faces the same decision and opts to address the hole by carrying a soil particle to the breach. Soon, other ants notice and quickly converge to seal the hole with soil particles.

The ants multiply and swarm the hill. The next group descends to work externally. This swift sequence mends the hole. In hours, they repair it. The foraging ants remain oblivious to the hole and its repair.

Ants consistently demonstrate responsibility and ownership. Each ant takes initiative, deciding based on the colony’s needs without central authority. They collaborate, adapting to local environmental changes.

In emergencies, they act autonomously, excel in subgroups, feel ownership driven by a shared mission to improve the hill, and decide for the collective good.

How can we translate these practices to energize workplace relationships? Let’s explore the practices I launched to begin our self-organization journey in the next section.

Why should you self-organize your team?

Self-organization transforms workplace relationships by creating an empowering ambiance that values everyone. It allows people to decide and collaborate without top-down management, resulting in higher engagement, enhanced problem-solving, and greater ownership and accountability.

Laloux describes in Reinventing Organizations how self-organized organizations thrive globally by avoiding centralizing power and decision-making, common in traditional hierarchical structures. Self-organization operates through three mechanisms: decentralizing control, distributing problem-solving, and multiple interactions with positive feedback.

Understanding self-organization and its transformative power in work culture is crucial. By adopting the decision-making process of an ant colony, we can overcome hierarchical challenges. Non-hierarchical setups foster a culture of trust, enabling individuals to contribute their unique insights and ideas.

Here is the crux of my experiments:

You were hired to constantly seek the most valuable work you could do, not to fill a job description.

  • People are considered nice because they are reliable, self-motivated, trustworthy, and intelligent.
  • Without happiness, there is no performance. To be happy, we need to be motivated. To be motivated, we need to be responsible. To be responsible, we must understand why and for whom we work, and be free to decide how.
  • The product or service creates value. Colleagues craft the services; office staff support them at best, and at worst, are costly distractions.

  • We believe the organization has its soul and mission.
  • We listen to the organization’s desired direction without imposing our own.
  • We must examine if our calling aligns with the organization’s purpose.
  • We infuse our roles with our energies, not egos.

1. Titles: We do not have job titles or hierarchy. Depending on our work or geography, we work in self-managed circles of <15 members. The goal is to enable colleagues to become their strongest, healthiest selves, not to make everyone equal.

2. Decision-making: The organization uses the advice process to make decisions.

All organization colleagues can decide, provided they consult with affected individuals and experts.

If a new hire seeks your approval for a decision, decline. Clarify that in a self-managing organization, no one, including the founder, “approves” decisions. However, if the decision impacts you or you have expertise, share your advice; the problem identifier makes the final decision.

3. Conflict resolution

– In the first phase, they meet privately to resolve the issue. The initiator must make a clear request, and the other must respond. This request should not be a judgment or demand, and the response should be a “yes,” “no,” or counterproposal.

– If they can’t agree, they nominate a trusted colleague to mediate. The colleague helps find an agreement but cannot impose a resolution.

– If mediation fails, a panel of relevant colleagues convenes. The panel listens and helps shape an agreement. It often carries enough moral weight to conclude matters, but cannot enforce a decision.

– The founder will join the panel in the final step to add significance.

4. Responsibility and Accountability

  • We bear full responsibility for the organization. If we sense something needs addressing, we must act. It’s unacceptable to confine our concerns to our roles’ boundaries.
  • Everyone must feel comfortable holding others accountable for their commitments through feedback and respectful confrontation.

1. Peerbased evaluation and salary processes.

  • Every January, colleagues gather to discuss contributions, recognize them, and set appropriate salary levels in a peer-based evaluation meeting to determine changes.
  • The new hire sets their salary after everyone shares their information, which colleagues can then adjust.
  • The maximum salary does not exceed six times the lowest.
  • You gain authority by showing expertise, assisting peers, and adding value. Cease these actions, and your influence—and pay—will diminish.
  • During a crisis, the company reduces salaries starting with the highest and then moving down to the lowest. If this measure proves ineffective, the company convenes a meeting to reduce salaries until it achieves stability. The company decides compensation for reduction on a case-by-case basis.
  • 8% of net profits will be distributed equally as a bonus among all colleagues in January salary.
  • Everyone in the organization can access financial and other information transparently and easily.
  • Regardless of their job scope, all new hires work across departments for the first month.
  • Practice continuous improvement.
  • Working hours: You are not required to have anyone tracking your hours or days. Inform colleagues when you take leave or arrive late.
  • Feedback and Performance Management: Peers give individual feedback and appraisals. This process should focus on inquiry, and celebration, not judgment, and control.

In the next section, I distill practical steps from my experience to establish a self-management environment and improve workplace relationships.

I realized the importance of fostering a collaborative and cooperative workplace after studying ant colony self-organization. I removed titles, allowed everyone to set their salaries, opened the organization’s financials to all, and initiated dialogues to ensure understanding of the organization’s mission.

We stopped calling them ‘employees’; we prefer ‘colleagues’. Individuals have autonomy and influence over their work through decentralized decision-making.

Focus on the collective achievements of sub-groups to measure workplace success, rather than solely individual performance.

Implementing these steps will foster greater ownership among members and transform workplace relationships at any organizational level. They also apply to families, neighborhoods, clubs, or friend groups requiring coordination.

  • Trust is built in relationships.
  • Encourage open and honest communication.
  • Encourage feedback and practice active listening.

We sign business agreements once we trust each other. All relationships are built on trust. To build trust, communicate transparently. Empower individuals to make autonomous decisions and act. Foster an open, honest work environment where information, goals, finances, and challenges are shared openly. Encourage feedback and active listening within the team.

  • Ensure everyone understands the organization’s mission.
  • Encourage open discussions.
  • Individuals can suggest and provide input.

Create a self-organizing work environment by aligning everyone with the organization’s mission. Encourage open discussions and input on enacting the mission. Clearly define individual roles and responsibilities toward achieving the mission. This fosters ownership and commitment when everyone shares a common goal.

  • Organize members into circles.
  • Each circle works independently.
  • Decide on salaries and work schedules together.

Replace hierarchical organization charts with circles for team members, organized by activity—marketing, general, technical—or geography. Limit circles to 15 members.

Each circle collaborates, seeks input as needed, and makes decisions within its area. This fosters collaboration, creativity, and accountability. They align salaries, design schedules, and determine delivery methods with the mission. A team member gathers input, communicates with other circles, and delivers outputs.

  • Promote well-being, physical, mental, and emotional.
  • Encourage breaks and healthy habits.
  • Provide opportunities for growth and work-life balance.

In a typical hierarchical setup, people often mask their professionalism and pretend instead of bringing their authentic selves to work, resulting in pretense.

Prioritize physical, mental, and emotional health to promote well-being. Encourage regular breaks, exercise, and healthy eating. Provide training and workshops for continuous learning and development. Cultivate a supportive culture that encourages open discussions about challenges and seeks help when needed. Promote work-life balance and offer flexibility for personal commitments.

  • It is overwhelming, where should I start?

Start anywhere, all that matters is that you start experimenting by practicing any technique wherever you are – with your family, group of friends, or your residential society before taking this initiative to the workplace. To improve the current situation, start by assessing it and identifying areas for improvement. Implement one change at a time and gradually build on it. Seek input from team members and promote open dialogue for a culture of participation and accountability. Remember that change takes time, so be patient and persistent in your efforts.

  • How can I respond to resistance from team members?

To address resistance to change, show empathy and understanding. Listen to team members’ concerns and perspectives, and address them transparently and respectfully. Explain the reasons for the change and its potential benefits clearly. Share success stories from other organizations. Involve team members in decision-making and encourage their input. Offer training and support to adapt to the changes. Foster a culture of open communication, trust, and collaboration to overcome resistance.

  • How long does it take to see the results of self-management practices in workplace dynamics?

The timeline for self-management will vary based on practices and team dynamics. It’s important to view it as a continuous journey. Positive changes in communication and collaboration can be seen initially as team members take ownership and contribute ideas. As trust and transparency increase, the team culture may shift towards self-direction and shared responsibility. It’s essential to assess the impact, gather feedback, and make adjustments regularly.

Workplace relationships can be strained in a hierarchical setup. However, embracing self-organization can help individuals and teams thrive. By drawing inspiration from nature’s colonies, we can reimagine work dynamics and foster a culture where every voice is heard and respected.

Let’s empower workplace relationships by fostering trust, transparency, collaboration, and diversity. By demystifying these, we can enhance our work experience and create a more engaging and fulfilling environment.

If you have learned from these steps to transform workplace relationships towards self-organization, share your experience or feedback.

If you would like to have a one-on-one coaching call, kindly reach out here with your questions.

Deepak Ashwani shares his learnings through various channels and is grateful to experience life’s mysteries.

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