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What are self-managed teams (and how do they work)?

one of the self managed teams have five employees collaborating without a leader

Collaboration is here to stay in the workplace. That's unsurprising, considering it has many benefits.

In fact, a Stanford study found that the idea of working together can increase a team’s performance and makes the group members more likely to persist longer on a challenging task.

But while teamwork appears to be gaining even more steam within the workplace, another interesting trend is taking shape: The need for management seems to be fading away.

A Boston Consulting Group study showed that less than 10% of employees aspire to become a manager one day and 37% of current managers believe their management level will disappear in five years.

So, what is the future for teams with fewer managers in the workforce? And if teams don’t have or need a manager, can they actually still function productively?

A solution for this management trend is to implement self-managed teams.

These types of working groups are becoming more popular in the workforce, especially within startup and tech companies. Even large companies like Google have implemented this team structure into their businesses.

Not entirely sure how self-managed teams work? Let’s walk through different types of collaboration dynamics and why working in self-managed teams might be right for your organization.

Table of contents
What types of work teams are there?
What are the benefits of self-managed teams?
What are the disadvantages of self-managed teams?
What makes a self-managed team successful?
How to form a self-managed work team
Employee autonomy can produce great results

What types of work teams are there?

Teams are formed to complete tasks and, depending on the project or deliverables, a different type of working group might be better suited for the assignment. Here are the four main types of teams that are commonly seen across organizations:

1. Project teams

Project teams are often led by a project manager and can be made up of a cross-functional group or employees within a single function who work together on specific projects. The group is usually brought together for a specific time period and is disbanded once the project or intended deliverable is completed.

Individuals on this type of team are assigned tasks and responsibilities based on their expertise or knowledge, especially for cross-functional teams that bring together employees from across the organization. The team will meet certain deliverables on a specified timeline and usually have to abide by certain budget constraints, too.

2. Operational teams

An operational team is responsible for carrying out day-to-day tasks and operations to keep the business running smoothly.

Employees on this team are all assigned specific roles and tasks based on their expertise. In addition, all group members of an operational team support one main goal or process, and they are typically measured by output rather than outcome.

3. Self-managed teams

A self-managed work team is a group of employees who assume full ownership and responsibility for completing something—whether that's a product, service, or a specific project. They do this through a high degree of collaboration and operate without a leader’s guidance and oversight.

The employees within the team are responsible for making decisions, resolving any issues, and setting expectations of each other. This type of collaboration works best with high-performing and responsible employees who don’t need a leader to remind them of their responsibilities.

Since self-managed teams set their own timelines and expectations, they tend to be autonomous and more flexible than other team structures. Each employee brings a specific skill set to the group and is empowered to be the expert in their area while working toward the group’s common goals.

4. Strategy teams

A strategy team is made up of people from various business units and is responsible for determining the overall strategy or initiatives of the business.

This group typically has highly experienced employees and known leaders (whether they’re a leader by title or influence) collaborating together. The team may come up with better ways to get work done or create annual goals for the company to strive for. This type of team may also be known as a leadership team, executive team, or a number of other synonyms.

What about virtual teams?  

While a virtual team is another commonly listed method of collaboration, it’s important to note that all of these teams may have a virtual component to the team structure for employees who work remotely. Remote work has skyrocketed in the last two years and has forced everyone to rely on technology, such as virtual collaboration tools, more than ever to get work done.

It’s likely that you will find yourself or your teammates working virtually at some point whether you’re on a self-managed team or an operational team. That’s why virtual working can no longer stand alone as a distinct team type and should be integrated into all types of working team structures. Employees no longer need to be limited by location to contribute and collaborate with others.

What are the benefits of self-managed teams?

Many startups and tech companies are moving toward self-managed teams and the benefits make it easy to see why.

1. Self-managed teams encourage psychological safety

First, self-directed teams can empower group members to speak up and voice their ideas or concerns without fear of disagreeing with the project leader (or worse, punishment or judgment). Employees may feel more confident in their knowledge and more willing to readily provide feedback, which can lead to higher employee engagement at work.

2. Self-managed teams can be more innovative

The feel of an autonomous, close-working team can also increase innovation and motivation. Each team member shares responsibility for the group’s performance and, as a result, could be more inspired to produce their best work and share ideas for improvement. Employees may feel more autonomous and take greater pride and more initiative in their own work and contributions.

3. Self-managed teams can work more efficiently

Self-organized teams are usually more efficient, too. Team members can quickly discuss ideas, make decisions and start taking action without too many approvals or hoops to jump through. This can lead to increased productivity across an organization and greater overall success.

What are the disadvantages of self-managed teams?

Like any work structure, collaborating in a self-managed team isn't all upsides. There are a few disadvantages as well.

However, as long as you keep these potential issues in mind and avoid behaviors that lead to those challenges, self-managed teams can still be a great option for your organization.

The biggest area to watch out for when working in a self-managed team is ensuring everyone on the team has an equal opportunity and voice. With no official team leader taking charge of the group, teammates with more extroverted personalities could dominate the group’s discussion, leaving more introverted colleagues out of the conversation.

Also, some research has shown that there is a larger pay gap for women on self-managed teams than hierarchical teams. This can foster frustration and feelings of distrust among team members and defeat all of the benefits of a self-managed team. To make this working structure successful, ensure everyone on the team is paid fairly and has an equal voice in decision-making.

Another key area to watch out for is team member accountability. For a self-managed team to work, it’s important that all employees take responsibility for their own portion of the project. If team members slack off or aren’t motivated to get the job done, the group will struggle to achieve its goals. Each individual needs to be able to produce quality, timely work and group members should keep each other accountable if someone begins to not pull their weight.  

What makes a self-managed team successful?

Simply throwing various people into the same group doesn't inherently lead to a thriving self-managed team. There are a few other factors that need to be in place to make this arrangement as successful as possible.

1. Motivation

A self-driven group is one that’s ready to become a self-managed team. Employees who show a high degree of autonomy and willingness to take initiative work well in a self-organized team because they don’t rely on management or others to tell them what needs to be done. They just do it.

Motivation can be a tricky thing to teach or coach for managers, but everyone can be motivated in some way. However, we all have different motivations that drive us. If you’re interested in uncovering what motivates you or the people on your team, F4S has an assessment tool that can help you understand what drives you or someone else. Once you’ve identified those core motivations, you can play into those strengths to be more productive at work and become a self-starter employee who thrives on a self-managed team.

2. Accountability

A self-managed team cannot be successful if teammates fail to complete work or won’t take accountability for their part in the team. Since the group is dependent on each other to do the work each person is assigned and there’s no official leader of the group, it’s crucial that team members take ownership for their responsibilities within the team.

Employees who get the job done on time and who go above and beyond to produce quality work are the best people to have on a self-organized team. They understand that without their effort, the project can’t be completed and they’ll let their teammates down.

In addition to individual accountability, a self-managed team needs accountability within the group. If someone fails to produce their part of the work, the team should be comfortable bringing up the issue and find a way to avoid it in the future. Without this group accountability, team members may slide through and put off work without any repercussions to the detriment of the team.

3. Trust in yourself and your teammates

Trust can take a self-organized team from a state of just getting by to thriving. First, it’s important that you trust in yourself and your own expertise. Have confidence in yourself to make sound recommendations to the group and speak up when your insight would be valuable to share. This will encourage you to think outside the box and will build trust from your team members for a better working relationship.

Trust goes both ways, though. As your teammates trust you and your ability to get the job done, you should extend that same courtesy to them. Ask other members for their thoughts and have faith they’ll complete their portion of the work when they say it will be done. A team that doesn’t trust each other can create hard feelings. Plus, checking in on other people’s work or questioning their decisions is counterproductive and decreases efficiency on the team.

4. Communication

Having strong communication in a self-managed team is critical. To be successful, employees need to have solid interpersonal skills. Team members should readily contribute their opinions and unique perspectives to drive the team toward its goals. Employees should also keep communication lines open within the team and provide updates to coworkers who may not have full visibility to work done on the sidelines.

Meetings can be a great communication channel but they should be only used when collaboration is needed from multiple people at the same time. Communication in a meeting can also be beneficial if someone is responsible for keeping meeting notes and providing a meeting recap with action items for all teammates. These communication best practices will keep work teams in the loop of all work that gets done and help avoid any future misunderstandings.

How to form a self-managed work team

Ready to start working as part of a self-directed team? Here are the five steps to follow to implement this working structure into your own organization:

1. Find the right project

There are different types of teams for a reason and each has different benefits that can be useful depending on the type of work that needs to be done. If you’re trying to make the case for working in a self-directed team, make sure you choose the right situation to showcase how autonomous working can enhance productivity. A few project examples where self-managed teams have greater success are developing a streamlined process for customers or introducing employee resource groups to the business.  

2. Find the right group

Don’t underestimate the importance of employee performance and drive. To have a successful implementation of self-managed teams, start with a group of highly motivated people who take initiative for projects and have solid problem-solving skills. This will help the new way of working start on the right track and set an example for any additional self-directed teams going forward.

3. Define individual roles and expectations

Once you have the team members identified, develop some basic working guidelines and go over team roles to get everyone started. Having clear job roles and responsibilities will put everyone on the same page and set the standard of working as the group tackles new projects together.

4. Create team goals

The most effective teams have a shared set of goals and objectives they’re striving for. Decide what success looks like for the working group and list out those milestones you’re hoping to achieve. Accomplishing those goals also gives leadership a strong grasp of team performance and shows why a self-organized team can be useful.

5. Regularly check in for feedback

As you dive into working more and more in a self-managed team, be sure to regularly review how the structure is working for everyone in the group. You can use surveys, team conversations, and other methods to solicit honest feedback and suggestions. This will help uncover any areas that need improvement or more guidance and you’ll be able to share your learnings with management in case other self-managed teams are formed across the business.

Employee autonomy can produce great results

There’s no doubt that giving highly motivated employees the space and opportunity to collaborate with similar individuals can inspire great ideas for a company.

Sometimes all it takes is a little space and breathing room from leadership to let teams dive into finding innovative solutions themselves. With the right business need, self-managed teams can get work done more efficiently and drive higher engagement in employees.

If you think you’re ready to work more autonomously or you have colleagues you think would benefit by working in a self-organized group, consider taking our Team Building personal coaching program. You’ll work on how to trust your teammates, keep each other accountable, and communicate effectively to get work done and create a lasting working relationship. A group that works together well will have no troubles transitioning into a self-managed working team.

Ready to build team player skills to jump into a self-managing team? Get started for free with personalized coaching.

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