Leadership at Work: Hierarchy vs. Self-Managing Teams

Professor Matthias Spitzmuller explains that self-managing teams shine for organizations that need to keep pace with changing customer needs.

Since the 1960s, firms in the developed world have been moving away from strict hierarchical, command-and-control leadership. But as corporations have grown in size, the challenges of managing and aligning large workforces and offering autonomy with few bureaucratic checks and balances is increasingly difficult.

In this video, Matthias Spitzmuller, an associate professor and Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, discusses how hierarchical organization serves an important purpose. In some cases, it can be better than team-based decision-making. It allows organizations to pivot quickly in the face of rapid change, such as the Covid pandemic, when leaders must take fast and decisive action. Hierarchy and the “strong leader” can also be valuable in stable industries that do not rely on innovation, and in teams that are in conflict.

Prof. Spitzmuller explains that self-managing teams shine for organizations that need to keep pace with changing customer needs. He says the most effective self-managing teams avoid chaos by defining clear roles and responsibilities, team goals, how conflict is resolved. While group identity is important to cultivate, he cautions against viewing the strong authoritarian leader as the only means of rallying people to a cause.