Is Self-Organization A Good Employee Experience?

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

*Originally published for the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI)*

In a recent article, Valve’s workplace toxicity was attributed to its unique organizational structure - namely, that it is “flat” and “self-organized” - concepts that are often challenged as reckless and inherent failures.

Coming from a self-organizing company myself, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the argument of, “This company is having a challenge with X and it’s obviously because of their unorthodox structure.” Yet you never hear this debate when questioning the challenges of any “traditional” organization. You would never hear someone say, “Sears isn’t doing so well? It’s clearly because of their standard corporate hierarchy.”

Many would have your back if you replied to Valve with, “They will never succeed without managers.”, yet you would seem crazy if you said, “Company X will never succeed with managers.”

This reveals one of the most common and misunderstood beliefs about self-management/self-organization: A self-managed/organized company can have all the same challenges as any other company, but it can also have many additional benefits that other companies cannot.

I don’t have insider knowledge about Valve, but we’ll use them as an example.

Structurally, Valve is completely flat and has no hierarchy - thus nobody is inherently more powerful than anyone else. However, according to the article, they struggle with a shadow hierarchy, politics, favoritism, and all that terrible stuff we have all experienced in the workplace. Yeah, that’s awful, but how many “traditional” companies can you think of that also suffer from those same things? We can agree that these problems can, and often do, exist in any company.

On the other hand, with the way they are structured, anyone can work on anything they want to. See a project you want to be a part of? Just wheel your desk over there and start working on that project instead - nobody can tell anyone else what to work on or how long to work on it. Now try providing me a list of how many common companies this would be permitted at. The verdict? These benefits exist in very few companies, typically only those with structures and cultures which we consider “radical”.

Being part of an organization which is struggling to be as self-organized as it claims is difficult and stressful, as may be the case with Valve, but it’s also so incredibly empowering that I don’t know of anyone who has experienced such an environment that would choose to work at a traditional organization ever again.

Nearly every company will unfortunately require that I learn the shadow structure and politics, become accustomed to all the challenges and struggles, and deal with the day-to-day stresses that may or may not have an easy solution.

Thus, if I am likely to deal with those things anyway, I would wish to deal with them in an organization where I have power to make decisions, ability to make changes, and the freedom to work in a way I want.

That is what creates a great employee experience.