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The Trouble with Self-Managing Teams


Teams that run themselves are popular, but they don’t always work. Sometimes you just need a leader

Team at work. Young modern people in smart casual wear discussing business while working in the creative office.
  • Self-managing teams are increasingly popular as they give team members the autonomy to manage and follow through on tasks. With a greater sense of ownership, employees are motivated to allocate resources effectively and contribute to collective goals.
  • A study looked at the performance of self-managing teams whose members have diverse goal orientations.
  • The study showed that self-management only pays off for teams whose members share the same goal orientation. When they don’t, information does not flow well. It becomes tougher to get alignment on goals compared to teams with a formal leader.

In the early 1950s, as Britain was recovering from the Second World War, coal miners in South Yorkshire started experimenting with new ways of extracting ore. Up until then, the scientific principles of Taylorism ruled: like a cog in a vast machine, each miner performed only one of a number of functions involved in extracting coal. With management support, the miners reorganized themselves into self-managing teams that performed all the necessary jobs. It turned out to be a productivity boon, as it allowed the mine to operate 24 hours a day.

Tipped off about the innovation, Eric Trist, a rising organizational theorist, visited the mine and was amazed at what he saw. Trist would go on to popularize the concept of self-managing teams that pursue collective goals with a high degree of autonomy. At a time when “hierarchy” is considered a bad word, the self-managing team is now a fixture in many industries. We have even moved beyond self-managing teams; the buzz today is about self-managing organizations. Say hello to Holacracy, Teal, and pod structures.

But does the evidence match the hype? Are self-managing teams really so much more effective? Although results have been inconsistent, most studies indicate yes. Employees have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility. As a result, they are more motivated to allocate resources effectively and contribute to collective goals.

But there are dissenting views. A recent study based on self-managing teams at a chain of beauty shops uncovered a problem involving pay equity. The chain allowed members of self-managing teams to decide among themselves how to split up commissions from the sale of prepaid gift cards. On the surface it made sense: The workers themselves should know best who deserved the most credit for a sale. But at the beauty shops, the largest commissions did not go to the top salespeople. Female employees, who made up nearly half the chain’s workforce, were more productive than their male colleagues but earned 24 per cent less.

When Goals Diverge

And then there is diversity. Much of the management advice today is to embrace a diverse workforce to benefit from the wisdom of multiple perspectives. One of the challenges of diversity is aligning all those perspectives to an overarching goal. New research shows how a certain form of diversity, one that’s not so easy to spot, can undermine the performance of self-managing teams.

The study was one of the first to actually compare self-managing teams to teams with traditional hierarchical leadership. It looked at what happens when team members have differing goal orientations — these are mental models that reflect how people approach task goals.

There are two types of mental models: one that focuses on learning and development and another on demonstrating competence. Learners like to get feedback, are persistent and proactive, and take time to understand tasks. Performers care less about developing their skills and more about showing high performance, particularly on tasks that are visible and that come with recognition. 

“Usually when we’re looking at diversity, we look at racial or gender diversity,” says Matthias Spitzmuller, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business and a member of the research team. “But we also know that diversity in values and beliefs and goal orientations are not as easily identifiable when you start working on a task, but over time they can really influence how teams are performing.”

Spitzmuller and his colleagues studied 57 five-person teams. Team members — university students in the U.S. — worked on a dynamic computer simulation.

The study confirmed the researchers’ initial suspicions. It showed that self-management only pays off for teams with members who share the same goal orientation. In those cases, they tended to approach the task in similar ways and shared information, and alignment was fairly easy to reach. 

But when teams were diverse in goal orientation, self-management was more damaging than useful. Information did not flow nearly as well and it was more difficult to get aligned. In these cases, having a hierarchical leader proved more effective. With one recognized leader, it was easier to co-ordinate efforts and focus on the same target. 

The researchers conclude that organizations keen to reap the benefits of self-managing teams should be highly selective in how and when they are applied. They should look at the characteristics of team members and introduce self-management in teams with similar goal orientations and use hierarchical leadership in teams diverse in goal orientation. 

“Whenever you have diversity in anything,” says Spitzmuller, “if you introduce a chaotic element, then you need to balance that with an element that emphasizes the team as the figure. And that’s centralized leadership.”

Shared Purpose on Self-Managed Teams

Unfortunately for leaders, trying to stack the deck with employees of similar approaches to work is easier said than done, says Spitzmuller. Goal orientation is notoriously difficult to identify, and employee surveys can be misleading.

“People overestimate their learning goal orientation and underestimate their performance goal orientation,” says Spitzmuller. “People think they’re all about the long-term improvement but if you observe them they don’t like to look stupid in front of others as they’re taking risks. That’s why it’s not that easy to identify a person’s goal orientation. The best indicator is past behaviour.”

For organizations committed to using self-managed teams, Spitzmuller advises leaders to create powerful experiences that engender an esprit de corps among team members, “a feeling that you’re going through a journey together, a shared fate.” These experiences can stand in for traditional centralized leadership.

Spitzmuller cites a previous article he wrote that looked at the success of another form of self-managing teams—terrorist cells. These shadowy groups have no formal leadership and operate in highly chaotic circumstances, yet they can be grimly successful. “Why do they work? Because they view the world exactly the same way. They’ve grown up as childhood friends, felt marginalized. It creates the feeling of being in this together.”

In some ways, Spitzmuller could be describing the cohesive community of South Yorkshire coal miners that Eric Trist met 70 years ago. But it doesn’t describe the vast majority of teams in modern organizations. With today’s diverse workforces, it is fair to wonder if traditional hierarchical leadership has been getting a bum rap.

“For me the study raises an interesting question, which is not fashionable,” says Spitzmuller. “Do we need more hierarchy in a more diverse society and organizations?”

This study was conducted by: Anne Nederveen Pieterse (Rotterdam School of Management), John Hollenbeck (Eli Broad Graduate School of Business), Daan van Knippenberg (LeBow College of Business), Matthias Spitzmuller (Smith School of Business), Nikos Dimotakis (Spears School of Business), Elizabeth Karam (Rawls College of Business), and Dustin Sleesman (University of Delaware)