How to Become Your Own Boss

Self-management works best when the goals are clear and the reins are loose.

By Judith Sills Ph.D., published September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Ahhh, discipline—that cherished employee virtue, the aspiration of management gurus and trainees alike. Discipline is the current Mom and Apple Pie of the workplace. But, like everything else, it has a dark side.

Bright side up, you're aspiring to the focus and productivity that can come only from a reverence for and practice of discipline—in all its structured glory. Face down, though, the choke chain pulls you away from desire, from risk, from creativity and back, back, back, to the tedious duty that's always calling.

Anything two-sided is tricky to negotiate, especially at the office. You know that from experience. Like every other uneasy office truce, the grail of discipline is most likely achieved by understanding what it is—and what it is not.

At heart, discipline is an internal state. It is a kind of self-management. The grim-faced snitch, who rats you out because you are always 20 minutes late while she is always on time, is merely an enforcer. If she's your team leader, she may succeed in whipping you back into line. But she is not promoting discipline, the frame of mind that gets you out of bed early because you no longer allow yourself to be late. Impulse control, exercised from within, is discipline's hallmark.

But impulse control exercised by your boss works too. "Conscience," said Voltaire, "is not the fear of God but the fear of the police." And a boss who cares what time you arrive, how scrupulously you meet your deadlines or how assiduously you respond to your customers certainly makes it more likely that you will struggle to achieve that disciplined internal drive. If the workplace value system rewards self-management, then we're much more apt to develop and practice it.

Managers who create an environment where people manage themselves are most likely to maximize productivity and job satisfaction. But how do you get employees not only to drive themselves but also to end up together at the same destination? You do it by recognizing that the absence of discipline is chaos and laziness, but discipline overdone is dictatorship. Discipline may make the trains run on time, but it will never get them someplace more interesting.

As Americans, we tend to believe that if something is good, more of it is better. But in this instance, the core elements of discipline are good, but more of it tends to make things worse. So every manager, and every employee, needs to find that delicate balance. After all, just one neighborhood over from discipline lies the sterile, gated community of workaholism, perfectionism and punishment. It's easy to get confused and wind up there.

A focused and energetic employee is apt to be delightfully productive, but a workaholic tends to be a rigid judge of others. The internal standard that drives you to polish the proposal to a high shine contributes to an atmosphere of excellence. But the perfectionist eye that scrutinizes and worries over every tiny detail creates an atmosphere of paralysis.

Clear objectives and regular evaluations inspire self-management, because people know what needs to be done and whether they are doing it well. But pushed to an extreme, evaluation can become criticism and punishment, which—no matter how justified—only builds anxiety and resentment.

How does a manager maintain the balance between effort, attention to excellence and consistent accountability—essential elements of a successful workplace—and workaholism, perfectionism and punishment, which work against workplace well-being ?

Basically by keeping the goals clear and the reins loose. That's the balance that gives an employee the greatest shot at self-management, while guaranteeing a boss the likelihood of achieving her objectives. It's what discipline in the workplace truly means.

Clear goals are an obvious (if not always easy) employer target. People need to know what they're supposed to be doing and, optimally, why they're supposed to be doing it. A goal is effective if it's an achievable stretch and fits into a larger vision of success. In a disciplined workplace, every employee (OK, not the jerk watching the Internet porn) feels accountable for the whole endeavor's success . After all, when you stop a waiter at a great restaurant, he doesn't say, "Sorry, that's not my table."

Employees need to be reminded of these goals frequently, in a relaxed, "Hey, how are those cold calls coming?" way, as well as in formal performance reviews. It helps to celebrate the achievement of a goal—with applause, acknowledgement, prizes, gifts and money.

Still, clear goals alone will not promote self-management unless workers can make the company's goals their own. That's where loose reins are essential. Loose reins mean the boss tells an employee what to do—but not how to go about doing it. And the employee is invited to give the boss feedback along the way, renegotiating the assigned goals if experience shows they could be improved.

It's really this feedback loop that is the petri dish for a disciplined workplace and a self-managed worker. Imposed goals in exchange for a salary encourage one level of effort. Negotiated goals, where an employee has some say in what he or she is trying to achieve and a lot of say about how she will go about achieving it, prompt an additional level of disciplined effort.

True, not every worker is up to the task of self-supervision. But in today's atmosphere of flattening management, employees need to be nudged more and more in that direction. In the end, discipline is an inner transformation, the result of reward, encouragement and opportunity consciously placed in someone's path.

As such, it's a process that the parent figure either encourages or quite simply squelches. Just as the strongest families instill values and then take the risk of turning over the reins, so the strongest companies set objectives and inspire employees to creative solutions.

We all struggle between freedom and control. When we get the balance right, we call it discipline.

Steering Clear of Workaholism and Overcontrol

Navigating between workaholism and hard work, on the one hand, and firm goals and ferocious control, on the other, is often tricky. And it's not always easy to tell where you are. Here are some signals that you are approaching the inner balance at the heart of discipline.

  • When given a deadline for a complex task, you automatically set up a schedule of mini-deadlines. No one has to tell you how to structure your time.
  • You work according to the time necessary to complete your work, which may end up being longer than the time specified by the clock.
  • You can close your office door and focus on a task, but you can also hang out in the hall sometimes and focus on people.
  • You generally have a plan, and you've been known to change it.
  • The people you supervise feel comfortable making suggestions to you.
  • You've contributed to work not in your job description.
  • You are prompt most of the time.