Chapter 2: Groups In Organizations

2.6 Self Managed Work Teams

The Open University

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Self-managed work teams have been described as one of the more important approaches to improving team performance in recent years. Other teams with this style of team organization are described as ‘self-directed teams’ and ‘semi-autonomous work groups’, which gives some sense of how a self-managed team manages itself.

self-managed work team is a team in which the members take collective responsibility for ensuring that the team operates effectively and meets its targets. Typically, members of self-managed teams are employees within an organization who work together, within a broad framework of aims and objectives, to reach a common goal. When setting up the team, two of the parameters that have to be defined are the levels of responsibility and autonomy that are given to the self-managed team. So teams can have varying degrees of autonomy, from teams who have considerable control over their work, and the boundaries within which they operate, to self-managed teams that are set boundaries by team leaders. (Some authors give different names to teams at different ends of this spectrum. In this course we use the same term.)

In general, self-managed work teams have considerable discretion over:

  • the work done and setting team goals
  • how work is achieved – which processes are used and how work is scheduled
  • internal performance issues – distributing the work and the contribution made by each member of the team
  • decision making and problem solving.

Benefits of self-managed work teams

Individual team members may have the opportunity to use their skills and experience outside their specified remit (or job title) within an organization. Since team roles within self-managed work teams are much more fluid than in hierarchical teams, team members may have increased discretion over their work, which can lead to greater motivation and improved performance. Team members may also have greater freedom to complement each other’s skills. Finally, team leaders can act more strategically, resulting in fewer surprises and purposeful team development, since they are freed from some of the management tasks required of team leaders in hierarchical teams.

The benefits of self-managed teams include (based on Howell, 2001):

  • Cost savings: Organizations such as RCAR Electronics in the USA reported annual savings of $10 million following the implementation of self-managed teams.
  • Innovation: Team members have the freedom to review and improve working practices.
  • Effective decision making: Self-managed teams can develop quicker or more effective decision-making skills.
  • Increased productivity: Teams work towards a common goal and are responsible for their own actions. When successful, self-managed teams can be 15–20 per cent more productive than other types of team.
  • Improved customer satisfaction: Self-managed teams benefit organizational performance through improved sales figures and customer service. Companies have reported significantly lower customer returns and complaints.
  • Commitment: Team members can become more involved in projects as a direct result of having increased autonomy and responsibility.
  • Motivation: Team members have shared or equal responsibility so members are accountable for their actions.
  • Increased compatibility between employers and employees: Self-managed teams can relieve stress for the leader, who is then able to concentrate on other tasks. The team is mutually supportive and members learn from each other instead of approaching the team leader for advice.

Leading a self-managed team

The leadership role in a self-managed work team is very different from that of a team leader in a traditional hierarchical team. In a hierarchical team the team leader allocates work. In contrast, in a self-managed work team, the leadership role involves taking on more of a supporting role, which includes identifying the long-term career and personal development needs of the team within the context of the overall organization. Table 2 compares the roles of a team leader in these two types of team.

Table 2 The roles of a team leader in a hierarchical team and a self-managed team

The team leadership role in a:
Hierarchical team Self-managed team
The role is vested in one individual. The role may be shared.
To manage the team. To support the team by providing (or arranging others to provide) coaching and advice.
To plan and allocate the work done by the team. To agree, in discussion with the team, the standard of work and the aims, objectives and targets of the team.
To monitor and appraise the performance of team members in carrying out the tasks allocated to them. To monitor the achievement of the team as a unit. To appraise individual performance.
To motivate the team members. To provide the conditions for high motivation.
To act as the main contact point for communication between the team and the rest of the organization. To facilitate the creation of channels of communication with the rest of the organization.
(Based on the Self-directed Teams topic, Good Practice Ltd.)

Potential problems with self-managed work teams

For all their potential benefits, successful self-managed teams are not without their problems. They can be difficult to set up, particularly if there is not a culture of using self-managed work teams in an organization. For example, the team may find it difficult to interact with other parts of the organization because of their different working practices. Individuals new to self-managed teams may be anxious if they perceive that they may be given extra responsibility. Conversely, team leaders may feel that their role is threatened by having some responsibility taken away from them. Everyone may need additional training to give them the extra skills that they may require in their new team. There can be more redundant communication in self-managed teams because there is often no clear structure for communication, obtaining guidance or making decisions. Consequently, guidance may be sought from the entire team and decisions will be made by discussion, rather than by reference to a team leader who is empowered to make decisions, as would be the norm in a project or operational team. The team leader must provide an initial structure until the team has established its rules and norms. Finally, an ever-present problem with teams is that of ‘freeloaders’. If a member of a team does not meet their responsibilities this will impact upon the work of the other team members, and hence the productivity of the team as a whole.

Planning, preparation, ongoing communication and follow-up are all necessary for a transition towards self-managed work team working. For a self-managed work  team to remain successful, its members must be tolerant of errors and allow for learning, and there must be trust both within the teams and between the team members and team leader. This will allow risks to be taken and information to be shared, and will foster a willingness to accept change.

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2.6 Self Managed Work Teams by The Open University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.