Tools & Templates

What is self-direction?


Self-direction is the reality for more and more employees. Both in production, schools and hospitals more and more self-directing teams are created, and knowledge workers are expected to be increasingly self-directed.

But the ability to direct oneself is not something we are born with. In order to function as a self-directed employee there are some elements which must be in place.

But first: What is self-direction? There is actually a great deal of confusion and lack of clarity among companies concerning what self-direction really is. Many see self-direction as employees deciding for themselves how they spend their day, others believe that self-direction equals no leadership.

Our approach to the term is that by offering freedom and showing trust in the individual employee, you can achieve greater access to the employee, in order to use him/her self in the value-creation of the organization. In return, this type of management means that the employee through increased responsibility has a bigger influence on management processes within the organization, not just concerning his/her own work in the organization but also across the entire organization.

Thus, self-directing employees should be capable of planning and executing assignments that support the company’s overall goals.

Self-direction as a motivational tool

When it comes to motivating employees, a lot indicates that the opportunity to self-direct motivates far more than traditional economic rewards such as bonuses and raises.

Daniel H. Pink, among others, proposes this claim in his book “Drive”, in which he concludes based on a range of empirical studies that inner rewards such as self-direction, “mastery”, autonomy and being part of a greater purpose are far more efficient. Financial, or outer, rewards therefor motivate far less than we've traditionally assumed.

Many have realized this along the way and self-direction becomes a more and more common term in business.

How to do it

To be able to direct yourself there are five things you must know how to do:

  1. Narrow down your tasks.

  2. Know when you are a success.

  3. Set goals. Both short- and long-term.

  4. Know which assignments that are most important and complete those first.

  5. Evaluate own effort. Where did you do well, and where did you not?

Self-direction make certain demands of the manager

Employees shouldn't deal with these tasks by himself. For self-direction to work optimally it's important that the leader clearly dictates which limits and boundaries the employee is expected to work within. Also, which goals and priorities the employee must reach and follow in order to support the overall goal and strategy of the company, must to be articulated clearly.

Self-direction is not without challenges

Even though self-direction has many advantages, it is also important that leaders and self-directed employees are aware of the disadvantages self-direction often bring. If you are directing yourself, you might recognize some of these:

Advantages Disadvantages

Responsible and involved employees

Risk that employees work too hard and/or get stressed

Independent and inventive employees

Risk that only strong employees survive

Employees carry part of the leadership task

Middle manager’s position often becomes unclear or invisible

The company’s values are carried out in reality by all employees

Values must be followed by every leader and manager even in hard times

Ownership of the company’s goals and strategies with sub-goals formulated by employees

Middle managers must make room for actual influence when setting the goals



Consultant Birgit Bertelsen also points at a variety of problems that are connected to the transition into a self-directing company structure:

  • Stress often occurs when we're developing new processes

  • Egocentrism easily spreads among strong employees

  • An informal hierarchy can quickly emerge to replace the formal one

  • Vulnerability when employees leave the company

  • Middle managers’ position often becomes unclear and difficult

  • Employees who don't want to self-direct can be marginalized

There are many advantages to gain from self-direction, but in order to get the full benefit, it's important that both employees and leaders are aware of the risks along the way.