February 28, 2019

Self-Organization: The Secret Sauce of Successful Job Candidates and Thriving Organizations


Whether we’re hiring candidates for an open position or looking for a jobs ourselves, most of us focus on education and experience. One important ability, however, often goes overlooked by people writing both job descriptions and resumes: self-organization.

Self-organization is the ability of a worker to initiate and organize their own work so that it aligns with the higher purpose of the company. As a management consultant who helps companies adopt more sustainable, nature-based management practices, I believe self-organization is the secret sauce for both finding the best new hires and positioning yourself as a top candidate in the market.

Understanding Self-Organization

Most of us want to work for thriving organizations that value high performance. Employees who can self-organize are often the most valued members of those organizations.

Asked what characterizes self-organization, most managers would describe four distinct capacities of a self-organized employee:

  1. A self-organized employee can initiate and organize their own work.
  2. They clearly align their work priorities with the purpose and mission of the organization.
  3. They are self-aware and understand their opportunities for improvement and the things they still need to learn. In addition, they can initiate their own learning to improve their performance.
  4. They can manage their emotions and do not spread drama or trauma in the organization.

When an employee takes initiative, keeps their supervisor informed, values continuous learning, and aligns with the organization’s purpose, they bring immense value to their team and contribute significantly to the bottom line. These individuals are also typically highly engaged, and we know how much engagement contributes to a company’s success. A 2018 Gallup report found that the most engaged teams are 21 percent more profitable than the least engaged teams.

It’s easy to see why self-organization is so highly praised among many business leaders. Employees who wait to be told by their managers what to do take a lot of time to supervise, and managers who demand that type of control are probably not spending their time wisely either. In contrast, individuals and teams that self-organize around a key purpose or goal drastically reduce supervision time and raise their performance levels. In my own practice, I’ve seen completion times for tasks fall by as much as 75 percent when self-organization is implemented.

Identifying Self-Organization in Yourself and Others

If you are a job seeker looking to promote your self-organization, you can start by including phrases like “takes initiative” and “committed to continuous learning” as part of your resume summary. When you are interviewing for a job, think about how you can demonstrate your ability to initiate and organize your work. Help your prospective manager see your capacity to self-organize and articulate why that capacity can be of value to them. Conversely, if it doesn’t seem like a potential employer values taking initiative or understanding the overall goals of the organization, you might want to reconsider working for that company.

If you are a recruiter, think about the kinds of questions you can ask candidates to help uncover whether or not they can self-organize. You want questions that help you determine whether a candidate can manage their own emotions, as well as questions that show a candidate can understand the organization’s mission and align their work accordingly. Finally, pay attention to any signals an interviewee may send that suggest they are — or are not — self-aware.

Nature teaches us the tremendous value of self-organization. All animal species and plant life within an ecosystem are required to self-organize. Just as nature does, organizations that want to be effective, adaptive, and efficient must self-organize to thrive and grow.

If you want to work for one of those kinds of companies, evaluate your own self-organization, and be sure to articulate it every time you communicate with a potential employer. It just might be the key to finding the job of your dreams.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and president of Allen and Associates.

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Thought leader, author, and trusted advisor Dr. Kathleen Allen helps organizations and individuals create meaningful change using nature as a model for more effective leadership practices. Dr. Allen's clients include internationally renowned nonprofits and foundations, growing businesses, and collaborative networks. She is the author of the popular book "Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today's World." For more information, visit KathleenAllen.net