What can sociocracy learn about best practices from research on self-management?

Sociocracy is one form of self-management that can be used in the workplace to implement collaborative decision-making and worker voice. Other methods include Agile and Holacracy. There are many benefits to self-management, including increased productivity and employee satisfaction. Read more about benefits of democratic and self-managed workplaces here.

But how can we do better in our collaboration? Thankfully, there is ample research on self-management that can inform best practices for implementing sociocracy.

At the team level

Self-managed teams need goal alignment among members

According to Pieterse 2019, self-managing teams need to be aligned in their goals. If members aren’t aligned, they can waste energy trying to get everyone on the same page rather than getting work done. Clear and concrete agreed upon goals seems to substitute for leadership in these teams. In sociocracy, aims are the shared goals that are agreed upon. Having nested aims, where each circle’s aim supports the organizational aims, helps keep the whole organization aligned while being self-managed. In sociocratic implementation, aims should be given careful attention and should be fresh in the group’s mind.

Self-managed teams need to be in harmony around their involvement level

Team members need to be communicating at the same energy level. High energy, high-engagement teams perform well, and so do low-energy, low-engagement teams. So it’s ok if not everyone is always going at full speed! However, mixed teams with high and low engagement members do poorly by comparison. 

The lesson to learn is to keep everyone together with others at the same level. Group high-engagement and low-engagement teams together, or the mix will drag everyone down. An example might be to have full time staff with focused working hours on one team, and a volunteer team with few working hours available to be entirely separate. You could also find some other creative solution to avoid a mix that really isn’t good for anyone!

At the individual level

Self-managing leaders need specific qualities

Have you ever worked under a “micro-manager?” Not every leadership style will work for a self-managed team. Research backs up the idea that self-managing leaders need to work to gain specific qualities and skills.

From a classic paper on “Searching for the Unleader,” leadership qualities sought by self-managed employees include:

  • Trying to get a team to solve a problem on its own
  • Facilitating team conflict resolution
  • Reflecting positive feedback to a team
  • Telling painful truths
  • Encouraging team members to openly discuss problems
  • Asking for solutions ot problems rather than proposing a specific solution
  • Being a resource to the team

It is also clear that self-managed teams require that leadership is shared. A leader who reserves decision-making power for themselves is not a self-managing leader. Stewart 2011 found that empowering team members and sharing leadership facilitates self-management.

Self-managed team members need specific competencies

A comprehensive literature review of the competencies needed by self-managed individuals had some interesting findings. 

Self managed employees need to:

  • Take responsibility for their decisions
  • Act on initiative
  • Accept shared leadership
  • Work on skills of learning, researching, planning, and organizing
  • Adapt and respond to change

Additional needed relational skills:

  • Supporting and trusting others
  • Showing empathy
  • Managing conflict constructively
  • Forming relationships with colleagues
  • Communicating directly and expressing their own opinions

Another literature review found that the following individual qualities are needed in individuals for successful self-leadership include:

  • Emotional self-regulation
  • High conscientiousness
  • Ability to engage in constructive self-talk
  • Intrinsic motivation

These lists paint a picture of a self-motivated, flexible, and emotionally intelligent employee. A psychologically safe context is also important for these qualities to emerge. Read more about psychological safety and sociocracy here.

At the team level

Self-managed teams need:

  • Mostly agreeable and conscientious members – that means being goal-directed and able to follow group rules.
  • Group cohesion
  • Tasks that are appropriate for the abilities of the team members
  • Ability to constructively resolve conflict
  • Shared understanding of group tasks

Source: Stewart 2011

Sociocracy can help implement these ideas by:

  • Careful selection of team members
  • Taking time for check-ins and team socializing
  • Choosing operational tasks that are well-scoped for team members
  • Using conflict resolution structures such as Nonviolent Communication
  • Focus on aims and objectives in groups with frequent reminders

According to one study, Critical Success Factors for Self-Managed Teams include:

  • Clear direction 
  • Real shared decisions and shared tasks
  • Authority to manage their work
  • Specific team goals
  • Cultural norms such as seeking feedback, experimenting with new ways of doing things, and discussing differences between team members

Sociocracy supports these practices by giving circle members real authority to manage their work, as well as shared decisions and specific goals. Special attention needs to be paid to cultural norms, as norms vary more widely by context.


According to research, team selection is vital for successful self-management. Sociocratic organizations should pay attention to the qualities of leaders especially, as well as qualities of team members when consenting to new members. Additionally, aims and goal alignment are especially important, as well as real decision-making authority over how to get work done.

We hope to learn more about self-management in sociocracy with further study over the summer. Stay tuned for updates on our original research, and best of luck with your collaborations!


Doblinger, M. (2021). Individual Competencies for Self-Managing Team Performance: A Systematic Literature Review, Small Group Research, 53(1)https://doi.org/10.1177/1046496421104111.

Manz, C. C., & Sims, H. P. (1984). Searching for the “Unleader”: Organizational Member Views on Leading Self-Managed Groups. Human Relations, 37(5), 409–424. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872678403700504.

Pieterse, A. N., Hollenbeck, J. R., van Knippenberg, D., Spitzmüller, M., Dimotakis, N., Karam, E.P, Sleesman, D. J. (2019). Hierarchical leadership versus self-management in teams: Goal orientation diversity as moderator of their relative effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly, 30 (6). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2019.101343.

Stewart, G. L., Courtright, S. H., & Manz, C. C. (2011). Self-Leadership: A Multilevel Review. Journal of Management, 37(1), 185–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206310383911.

Wageman, R. (1997). Critical success factors for creating superb self-managing teams, Organizational Dynamics, 26(1), 49-61. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0090-2616(97)90027-9.