Blog
Julian Jonathan Markus
June 7, 2024
6
min read
Management & Governance

What Makes Self-Managed Teams Unique?

Self-managed teams discussing together and thinking about what decision to make

Self-managed, self-directed, agile, scrum, autonomous, or just plain old teams. All these concepts are used to describe work teams which do not fit the standard ‘higher-up boss tells a group of people what to do’ narrative. Of course these aren’t all the same, but there are commonalities, and they are often used interchangeably. We, like most researchers, will use the umbrella term: self-managed teams.

If you work in an organization, you have probably at least heard the term “self-managed team”, which means: a group of individuals within an organization who collectively oversee and control their own work processes, decision-making, and performance management [1]. Essentially, these teams are, to varying extents, free from the supervision of a boss.

From thousands of companies, nonprofits, and even  the Dutch police (yes, really!), organizations are exploring the potential benefits of self-managed teams [2,3]. The question is, why should we care? These teams, that empower members to take ownership of their work, make decisions collectively, and drive their projects forward autonomously.

The World Economic Forum published an article in 2019 claiming that “self-managed teams are the future of the workplace” [4]. But what exactly, if anything, sets self-managed teams apart and makes them unique enough to be important now and in the future? Let's delve into the factors that distinguish self-managed teams, explore the potential benefits they offer, and the challenges they face.

Key Elements of Self-Managed Teams

A team is any other group of people trying to achieve a goal, but research has shown that self-managed teams are, in fact, distinct from other types of teams. What are the sources of their potential uniqueness?

First and foremost, these teams set themselves apart through the context in which they occur. Self-managed teams are mostly used in the ‘traditional’ forms of organizing where most teams are structure along strict hierarchies. Organizations may use self-managed teams in a specific area because for example, there is a need for flexibility due to the production of complex products [5]. Consider the case of Michelin (from the stars and the tires). Michelin introduced their “Empowering Organizations” initiative in the 2010s. At all their tire-production sites, they implemented self-managed teams to increase employee commitment and customer satisfaction. While implementing these teams, the rest of the organization remained rather traditional [6, 7].

* To see what Michelin did, take a look at this video:

Beyond the context in which self-managed teams are used, they are different for a number of other reasons. Not that other teams don’t also have these elements, but self-managed teams explicitly focus on using them. 

High Autonomy

At the core of self-managed teams lies a fundamental principle – autonomy. Unlike traditional teams, where managers dictate tasks and oversee every aspect of the process, self-managed teams are empowered to organize and execute their work independently. This autonomy fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among team members, driving them to take initiative and innovate without constant supervision. Why should you give people autonomy? Because autonomy is a fundamental human need and people are increasingly expressing this need [8].

Distributed Authority

There is not only one person who is in charge. Self-managed teams distribute authority among team members. Rather than relying on a single management figure, authority is spread, fostering collaboration, and promoting a sense of collective accountability. This could include collectively making hiring decisions or financial decisions [9].

Accountability

In self-managed teams, with authority being distributed, team members can make informed decisions based on their expertise and insights. People are held accountable for their actions, and don’t blame it all on the manager. This decentralized approach not only accelerates the decision-making process, but also encourages innovation and adaptability [10].

Article pick: Why is accountability important in the workplace?

Adaptive Structures

Traditional team structures are often rigid and hierarchical, which can limit agility and responsiveness. Self-managed teams, on the other hand, embrace fluid structures that can adapt to changing circumstances and priorities [11]. This flexibility enables teams to pivot quickly in dynamic environments, driving continuous improvement and innovation. This means that roles are not fixed in one person and can be switched and shared.

A Psychologically Safe Environment

Psychological safety forms the foundation of any self-management practice. Through fostering open communication, collaboration, and mutual respect, people will develop the belief that interpersonal risk taking is okay [12]. Team members operate in an environment where transparency is valued, enabling constructive feedback, and promoting a culture of learning and growth instead of judgment and competition.

Read our white paper on psychological safety to know more 👇

Why May You Want to Use Self-Managed Teams?

You might be asking yourself: do the characteristics that make self-managing teams different also lead to something that can be helpful for my team or organization? According to recent research, self-managed teams can deliver on promises of, for example, increased performance. That’s why they've been dubbed ‘building blocks of novel organization designs’ [13]. As building blocks, these teams can provide:

  • Enhanced Creativity and Innovation: With the freedom to experiment and try new approaches, self-managed teams can foster a culture of innovation within an organization. Team members are encouraged to think outside the box and contribute their own perspectives to problem-solving [14].
  • Higher Levels of Employee Engagement: When employees have more control over their work and decision-making processes, they tend to feel more engaged and invested in their jobs [15]. Creating self-managed teams can thus lead to higher levels of employee satisfaction and retention.
  • Improved Performance: Research has shown that self-managed teams can lead to higher levels of performance compared to traditional hierarchical structures. When employees are empowered to take ownership of their work and collaborate effectively, they are more likely to achieve superior results [9].

What Challenges Can You Expect?

While self-managed teams offer numerous benefits, they also present some challenges that must be addressed to ensure their effectiveness. Two of the most prevalent challenges are:

  • Complicated coordination: A team of five people is not the hardest thing to coordinate but coordinating a network of teams brings a vast array of challenges. How do we communicate? How do we share resources? How do we deal with a crisis? These are all questions that, normally, management would solve. When management is present, but not involved in teams, how can we coordinate? Some of these challenges can be overcome through effective support functions and formalized IT systems. AI has also been identified as a potential advantage and challenge. Dutch home care nursing company Buurtzorg has taken self-managed teams to the next level. They have a network of 900 teams without any form of middle management. They can do so by limiting team size and giving teams high autonomy, supported by an effective platform for cross-team collaboration. This avoids the need for bureaucracy [16]. Want to learn more about Buurtzorg works? Take a look at this video.
  • Conflict resolution: In a self-managed environment, conflicts may arise due to differences in opinions, priorities, or working styles [17]. When you and someone else do not see eye to eye, HR or management would normally intervene. But this could undermine a team’s autonomy. Implementing conflict resolution mechanisms and promoting a culture of constructive feedback can help teams navigate conflicts and foster reconciliation.

Article pick: How Self-Managed Teams Can Resolve Conflict

*Looking for more creative options? Try these techniques [18, 19]:

A poster that shows hints from hollywood to help self-managed team adapt
*Infographic reproduced with the explicit permission of the Academy of Management. Source: Hints from Hollywood to Help Teams Adapt. (2023). AOM Insights, amr.2022.0053.summary. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2022.0053.summary.

The Quick Read

Self-managed teams represent a potentially unique opportunity toward the future of work. By combining autonomy with, at least, shared authority, accountability, adaptive structures, and psychological safety, these teams can succeed. Results can include increases in innovation, engagement, and overall performance. When implementing self-managed teams, companies do need to consider how conflicts can be avoided and how networks of teams can be coordinated.

Self-management tools like Holaspirit can bring you the framework you need to visualize the roles, the processes and the projects of your self-managed teams. Reach out to the Holaspirit team to discover the platform and get concrete advice on how to implement self-management in your organization.

Companies like Great Place To Work have already made this transition using Holaspirit. So why not you?

Want to know more about self-managed teams? Take a look at these resources:

🔥 Article picks: How to Give Your Team the Right Amount of Autonomy & How to Lead a Self-Managing Team

🔥 Video pick: Frederic Laloux’s tips on how to get started with a self-managed teams

Sources

[1] Bernstein, E., Bunch, J., Canner, N., & Lee, M. (2016). Beyond the holacracy hype. Harvard business review, 94(7), 8.

[2] Botke, J. A., Tims, M., Khapova, S. N., & Jansen, P. G. (2022). Transfer of Self-Leadership Skills Within the Dutch Police: a Three-Wave Study. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 37(3), 650-668.

[3] de Morree, P. (2023). Bypassing Traditional Hierarchy: A Bold, Bottom-Up Movement in the…. Corporate Rebels. https://www.corporate-rebels.com/blog/bypassing-traditional-hierarchy-police

[4] World Economic Forum. (2019, August 29). Self-managing teams are the future of the workplace. Here’s why. Future of Work. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/leadership-management-successful-teams/

[5] Magpili, N. C., & Pazos, P. (2018). Self-Managing Team Performance: A Systematic Review of Multilevel Input Factors. Small Group Research, 49(1), 3–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/1046496417710500

[6] Hamel, G., & Zanini, M. (2020). Humanocracy: Creating organizations as amazing as the people inside them. Harvard Business Review Press.

[7] Menegaux, F. (2023). Michelin’s Path to Empowerment with Florent Menegaux (G. Hamel & M. Zanini, Interviewers) [Interview]. https://www.garyhamel.com/video/michelins-path-empowerment-florent-menegaux

[8] Reisinger, H., & Fetterer, D. (2021, October 29). Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/10/forget-flexibility-your-employees-want-autonomy

[9] Carson, J. B., Tesluk, P. E., & Marrone, J. A. (2007). Shared Leadership in Teams: An Investigation of Antecedent Conditions and Performance. Academy of Management Journal. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20159921

[10] Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness (First edition (revised)). Nelson Parker.

[11] Martela, F. (2022). Managers matter less than we think: How can organizations function without any middle management? Journal of Organization Design. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41469-022-00133-7

[12] Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 23–43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305

[13] Es-Sajjade, A., & Wilkins, T. (2017). Design, Perception and Behavior in the Innovation Era: Revisiting the Concept of Interdependence. Journal of Organization Design, 6(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41469-017-0022-1

[14] Annosi, M. C., Monti, A., & Martini, A. (2020). Individual learning goal orientations in self-managed teambased organizations: A study on individual and contextual variables. Creativity and Innovation Management, 29(3), 528–545.

[15] Lee, M. Y., & Edmondson, A. C. (2017). Self-managing organizations: Exploring the limits of less-hierarchical organizing. Research in Organizational Behavior, 37, 35–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2017.10.002

[16] Kreitzer, M. J., Monsen, K. A., Nandram, S., & De Blok, J. (2015). Buurtzorg Nederland: A Global Model of Social Innovation, Change, and Whole-Systems Healing. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 4(1), 40–44. https://doi.org/10.7453/gahmj.2014.030

[17] Langfred, C. W. (2007). The Downside of Self-Management: A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Conflict on Trust, Autonomy, and Task Interdependence in Self-Managing Teams. Academy of Management Journal, 50(4), 885–900.

[18] Hints from Hollywood to Help Teams Adapt. (2023). AOM Insights, amr.2022.0053.summary. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2022.0053.summary

[19] Munyon, T. P., & Summers, J. K. (2024). Emotion, Persuasion, and Team Adaptation: Advancing Theory Through Cinema. Academy of Management Review, 49(1), 182–196. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2022.0053

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