Are self-managing teams the solution in a fast-changing environment?

Karlien Vanderheyden

By Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

19 November 2020

Source: Management Team (09/11/2020)

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. This quote by Steve Jobs is closely linked to the principle of self-management and autonomous teams.

In the future, teams could play a crucial role in organisations. In a fast-changing market, traditional and hierarchical structures are making way for more agile teams that are able to respond quickly to challenges, come up with solutions and strive for innovation. Management as ‘command and control’ has reached its limits. Self-managing teams are in charge of a meaningful share of the work, with the role of the leader taking on a completely different function. The team members, who can take on different roles, often decide themselves on their working method, planning and the way they will coordinate with other teams*.

Advantages of self-managing teams

Self-managing teams have several advantages, including:

  • Involvement: when team members can influence the way they work and help decide how to achieve objectives, they feel more involved and motivated.
  • Efficient decision-making: when employees are free to instantly solve most problems themselves, without first checking in with their manager, precious time is saved. 
  • Output: self-managing teams can have a positive effect on results. Punch Powertrain’s Chief Operating Officer, for example, saw employees’ output double while absenteeism was reduced. Greater flexibility and faster reactions lowered the costs of the production process.

Potential pitfalls

  • Avoiding conflict: people tend to shirk from pointing out mistakes to each other.
  • Lack of specifics skills: team members need to be able to define and divide their roles among themselves, dare to take decisions and ask each other questions, reflect on their performance as a team and communicate openly. Some self-managing teams even disclose each team member’s salary to the others.
  • Burnout: when employees feel highly engaged, some risk not being able to let go of their work and succumbing to it. 
  • Culture: if management is not fully prepared to relinquish control and accept the decisions taken by self-managing teams, it becomes impossible for these teams to function.

How does this affect leadership?

  • Leaders as coaches
    In a self-managing team, a leader is someone who helps the other team members develop as individuals. The leader’s task is to help them fulfil their potential, not to intervene and rescue them whenever a problem arises. The team needs to learn how to turn problems into opportunities on its own. 
  • Working with different kinds of people
    To be able to respond effectively to a diverse environment, the diversity of the self-managing team itself is of great importance. This means that as a leader, it is important to be able to adapt your style to the different kinds of people in your team. One team member may have a greater need for clarity and direct feedback, while another may be looking for support and validation. Employees should also be able to cooperate across generations in these teams. You can help the team’s ‘millennials’ develop their interpersonal skills, so they learn how to cooperate well with elder colleagues and are open to learning from their colleagues’ experience. The elder team members, on the other hand, may need more support when it comes to new technologies and accepting the leadership of younger colleagues. 
  • Rewards
    Reward the kind of behaviour you would like to see. To encourage a team to cooperate, look beyond individual wins. Do you want team members to be honest? Listen to everything they have to say, even the things you would rather not hear. Do you want team members to try out new things? Discuss what they could learn from these and don’t punish them for potential mistakes.
  • Encouraging involvement
    Research by the American advice and research firm Gallup shows teams that are very involved in their work are 22% more productive, have a turnover rate that is 65% lower is and make 41% fewer mistakes. A good way of making your team feel more involved is to translate your strategic vision to clear objectives the team supports. People need to understand the importance of what they do.
  • Clarifying responsibilities
    Give a team sufficient autonomy and clarify what exactly that entails. If you, as a leader, fail to properly relinquish your managerial role or respect certain team responsibilities, team members will balk at being held responsible for problems outside of their control and feel increasingly frustrated and disappointed.

* Self-Managing Teamwork and Psychological Well-Being: REVIEW OF A MULTILEVEL RESEARCH DOMAIN HELEEN VAN MIERLO Eindhoven University of Technology and University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands CHRISTEL G. RUTTE Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands MICHIEL A. J. KOMPIER HANS A. C. M. DOOREWAARD University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands Group & Organization Management, Vol. 30 No. 2, April 2005 211-235

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Karlien Vanderheyden

Karlien Vanderheyden

Associate Professor