Does self-management increase diversity in teams? (Probably not.)


A common hope for self-managed organizations is that self-management also adds more diversity. Of course, that would be helpful because “cultural intelligence” (successfully navigating diverse cultures) enhances performance, satisfaction, and knowledge sharing in multicultural teams. Multicultural teams are also more creative than homogeneous teams, especially if people come from different backgrounds. 

Since cultural intelligence involves perspective-taking and suspending judgment, maybe self-managed systems lean towards more diversity? 

Let’s have a look at whether this is true. Let’s start with the good news.

The good news

A study on cooperative firms in Spain found worker cooperatives showed more tolerance and inclusion of marginalized groups like immigrants than conventional capital-managed firms [Kokkinidis, 2015]. This finding suggests democratic governance models correlate with equitable treatment.

It’s also known that inclusive leadership and contact between groups (outside of silos) break down stereotypes and promote equitable treatment. Since self-management systems like sociocracy tend to connect people across silos, the hope is that the breaking down of stereotypes is more likely. 

It is possible to integrate diverse perspectives because, in self-managed organizations, people are aligned around a common goal and methods like consent support alignment beyond consensus. Ironically, consent – which merely requires aim alignment – leaves room for different voices than aiming for a unanimous decision where we need to get everyone to agree and thus leave the different perspectives behind. 

But that requires that people from different backgrounds are already on the team. How do they get there in the first place? There is some evidence that fluid team membership policies in self-managing groups can enable the integration of underrepresented perspectives that may otherwise be excluded. But is that all?

The bad news

Increased need for alignment 

Some factors work to the organization’s disadvantage. 

The maybe most significant factor is that alignment across cultures and contexts is hard, and self-managed teams already have to work extra hard for alignment. For example, language barriers present challenges; members without solid skills in the common language tend to be underestimated and trusted less. Communication is even more crucial in self-managed teams. 

If the self-managed teams can’t pull that off, they might underperform compared to hierarchical leadership. 

Less support?

In addition, from personal experience, self-managed organizations can fail to support those with minority experiences; self-organizing teams tend to emphasize proactive self-responsibility. “If there’s a problem, solve it.” 

But that can overburden those who are at the receiving end. For example, if language creates a barrier, those who are experiencing the language barrier are also asked to come up with a solution. 

It’s important to note that diversity itself is not an obstacle but rather the lack of understanding and proper management of it.

More work to do

What we learn from this exploration is two things:

It depends. Self-management offers opportunities via its flexibility that can allow more diversity, but it depends on how well the organization manages communication and alignment. There’s an opportunity to outperform hierarchies, but it’s not a given. 

Read about SoFA’s social justice statement
More work is needed to achieve the desired results. A distinct action is needed if an organization “suffers” from groupthink and perspective monoculture – self-management on its own will not address it. Internalized bias doesn’t just “go away” in self-management. Self-managed organizations, just like hierarchical organizations, depend on additional measures to address bias.