For years, folks have struggled with phrases like “self-organizing” and the newer “self-managed” regarding teams. I have met plenty of leaders and managers who have tried to figure out how to create teams with these qualities and find their own place when they work with teams like this. In this article, I want to talk through a few things to consider if you’re a leader interested in building self-managed teams.
The most essential piece to setting up self-managed teams for success and helping leaders know where they still need to stay active is boundaries.
In most organizations, teams will not be setting their bonuses or promotions. This example is a boundary that teams can’t cross. On the other hand, many leaders expect teams to manage their delivery within a timeframe. If you’re a leader of these teams, you need to have a fairly explicit and ongoing set of conversations around what the team can and should manage and what they cannot or should seek help with.
The most significant danger a leader has is assuming these boundaries are obvious. I guarantee they aren’t.
A good way to tell if you are in a place that has struggled with this is to say the phrase, “You’re empowered,” and watch for the collective eye-roll. You have work to do.
When we put teams in a position to manage themselves more, and have more decision-making power, we also implicitly agree that their knowledge and expertise matter more.
Many organizations struggle with folks acting outside of their role or traditional responsibilities, and yet asking teams to self-manage creates this exact scenario.
So what is a leader to do? I want to give the easy answer first and then add to it after.
Let them make the decision. Say yes to what they are suggesting.
Now, for the longer part—prepare for failure. I don’t mean this in the sense that teams will make a mess of everything, but as teams learn what they’re capable of, they will stumble and make mistakes. As a leader, you must prepare yourself and the team for those moments when their plans don’t work out when risk isn’t managed as well as folks would like, and things go sideways.
You can mitigate these scenarios by frequent and detailed communication amongst the team, leadership, and other groups.
The more you can lean on the team’s additional expertise and allow them to grow, the more they self-manage and the better results. Just prepare for a bumpy path.
Ask This Question
Now, let’s assume you’ve got a capable self-managing team. What do you do as a leader?
Serve the team.
As the team grows in its capacity to self-manage, develop new skills, and acquire new knowledge, it will become more independent. So, as you go on this journey, ask, “How can I help?”
An alternative is, “What can I do for you?”
At the beginning of this journey, you will get silence, followed by numerous requests to work with other groups on the team’s behalf. As the team grows, you’ll hear requests to help the team navigate some specific risks and help with conflict. Finally, as they find their legs, you’ll be surprised that you’re a leader the team regards as a trusted partner. Requests for your assistance will continue, but not because the team can’t do it, but because they trust you to handle it.
The bottom line here is that you’ll always have a place as a leader with a self-managed team. The pursuit of allowing a team to leverage and grow their expertise and make decisions is worthwhile and unlocks greater impact. In turn, you will see a transition from being a leader who has to manage to a leader who is a trusted partner.