Self managing teams


Productivity is key to getting things done. The more productive we are, the more we can get done. Approaches that achieve this enhance the well-being of us as individuals and employees, and also enhance the effectiveness of the organisations we work in. If the organisation is a ‘customer’ facing one like social care or teaching, then there surely must be a benefit to the end user of the service if it is more effective and the people delivering it are more satisfied in their role. If you’re satisfied you work better, surely? Are self-managing teams the answer? Weerheim et al (2019) tell us they can be and that they result in clients being more satisfied and organisational costs being lower. Too good to true? 

I want to start to explore this by asking what is it that makes an employee happy? Stoic philosophy has had a lot to say about this with its long history stretching back to ancient Greece. One of the things that this branch of philosophy contemplates in relation to personal happiness is the dichotomy of control. The view is that there are some things that we have control over, some things that we don’t have control over, and things that we don’t have control over but that we can influence. Focusing on the things we can control, the Stoics observe, is the root to happiness (or as close to happiness that we can ever realistically achieve). You have to take the rest, that which we cannot control, as it comes, they say. Wisdom lies in accepting this position.

One of the ways to be most productive with regard to anything in life is to achieve ‘flow’. Flow is that state of being completely ‘in the moment’ to the exclusion of all other things, completely absorbed in the task at hand. ‘Flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002) says, relies on Mastery (having the skills and knowledge to do whatever is required by the task), Autonomy (having control of how you do what needs to be done), and Purpose (understanding what needs to be done and finding an internal connection to it). The final element Purpose creates what can be referred to as a ‘calling energy’. Purpose is derived from passion and passion provides energy that stimulates us to meet goals (Mordue et al, 2020). How can self-managing teams help deliver these three things to promote greater control over role for those delivering services, and to achieve a productive state of flow.

The problem in some organisations may be rooted in not giving people autonomy. Ruth Hannan (2019) says that trust is important. We are trusted in our lives in many ways but often when we enter the workplace we are not trusted to do an effective job. There’s a risk we are over managed. Hannan observes that this can be the case in social care. Care workers attend people’s home to deliver crucial care but aren’t allowed to exercise any significant level of judgment without deferring to someone in a position of management. They can often have to deliver to a plan set by others. Is there a better way?

The term ‘self-managing team’ is a difficult one to pin down so that we can explore it. It certainly involves elements of autonomous work (so fits with the idea of flow), considers ideas of a self-regulating and self-directing group of people, and relies on some form of shared leadership. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no one steering the ship or at least guiding the ship out of the harbour into the open waters of implementation. There is also no one way to be a self-managing team but there are some things to consider.

Wageman (2001) was interested to explore whether the success of self-managing teams was a consequence of either well designed teams or well coached teams and concluded, as we see with many things in life, that it was likely to be a combination of both. In looking at self-managing teams she started by considering what an organisation with, what she refers to as, ‘purpose’ would want in terms of performance. She felt, firstly, that the person or group must actually do the work not simply oversee it. Secondly, they must manage and monitor the work process. Thirdly the structure of the team must sit well in the context of the operation, and finally there must be specific goals and objectives. A self-managing team, she goes on to say, has accountability for, and authority over, the first two, namely executing and managing the work, but, within a structure, and towards a purpose, laid down for them, ideally in consultation, by the organisation.

The first thing of importance that Wageman (2001) acknowledges is goal setting. There are two interpretations of goal setting, both of which are important here. The team need to have goals, objectives if you like, or outcomes, that need to be achieved. These things need to be tangible and best practice would be to make the objectives SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relent, and Time bounded). This is part of the ‘design’ element of the team. What are they to do? They will go on to set the where, when, and how themselves, but they need to know what they are to do first. Goal setting though also has a personal dimension to it. 

Pieterse (2019) points out that what people consider achievement can vary dependent on how they set their goals. Some people are ‘learning orientated’ and are motivated to get a thorough understanding of a task in order to increase their skills and abilities. This is very much an intrinsic (or internal) motivation. They are setting a goal based on something internal to them, something they value personally. This tends to lead to the application of significant effort and persistence. We know that internal motivators are exceptionally strong. On the other hand, ‘performance orientated’ people focus on demonstrating their ability by outperforming others. Their motivator is external to them (or extrinsic). This has a tendency not to lead to skills development. People with this orientation to goals tend to focus less on the task itself and more on comparing themselves to others. Extrinsic motivators are known to be often ineffective particularly in people professions. A person who is performance orientated will be content as long as they are outperforming others even if overall performance is not good whereas learning orientated people are more likely to ask questions, gather feedback and analyze in order to improve practices.

Webb (2017) refers to these as approach and avoidance goals. An approach goal would be, ‘I want to able to do this task well’, while an avoidance goal would be ‘I want to make sure I don’t do this task badly’. I think it’s apparent which type of person you would want on a team when you want to growth and to deliver best practice and continuous improvement. Where teams don’t have a common goal orientation Pieterse (2019) discovered it was more effective to leave a hierarchical structure in place. 

Wageman (2001) considers the following foundations for an effective self-managing team:

The team should be a ‘real team’. It should have clear membership, be stable, and therefore mean people can operate as a collective.
There should be clear direction. The purposes of the team should be clear and few enough in number to be able to be remembered. They should be focused on outcomes rather than process.
The structure should enable. The team should consist of the minimum number of people required and be diverse in skills. Each team members role and their tasks should have interdependence with others. Goals should be challenging, and there should be a strategy that allows for long term goals to be set.
The organisation should be supportive, with effective rewards, systems, training and sufficient material resources to carry out the purpose.

Next Weerheim et al (2019) explore the effective implementation of such a team and suggest the following:

There should be an effective coaching process outlined. This, they report, is especially important where there is a negative perception of previous change implementation in the organisation.
The implementation process should be visible with coaching reinforcing a positive transition.
There should be clear task division based on preference rather than top down allocation. This requires the diverse skills range as detailed above by Wageman (2001). 
The self-managing team must be made capable of the task. This, as above, requires a mixed skill set and may require training around identified gaps. 
The team needs to be trusted, Hannan’s (2019) point. Leaders hanging onto tasks can lead to doubt in the team.
Good relationships within the self-managing team are crucial due to the level of collaboration required. Motivation as a consequence of good working relationships will enhance outcomes.               

 Coaching plays a role here.

Once the team is established, you’ll want to know how effective it is, and Wageman (2001) offers these markers:

Task performance – how is the Team’s performance meeting the needs of those they serve.
Group process – how do the people in the team interact so that the team increases their effectiveness over time
Individual satisfaction – On balance, for each member of the team, is the experience of being on the team more satisfying than frustrating?

Let’s go back to ‘control’ and ‘flow’.

It’s clear that a self-managing team approach puts a significant level of control in the hands of the team and, given the need for a mixed skill set, control in the hands of individual member to be effective for the ultimate good of the team. This needs a move away from a hierarchical, chain of command approach and relies on individual autonomy. In establishing the team, it is important that it is clear what the team do have autonomy (some if good more is better) and where something is not theirs to control. Remember the risk of not doing this is undermining the team with doubt. Are they really being trusted to self-manage? The stoics would lead us to conclude that we can’t expect to control everything, and we need to accept that. Accepting it is about clarity. Why can we not control that element? If the reason is sound it may cause less doubt than if it isn’t. The self-managing team still needs to be part of a bigger organisation. That also has to be acknowledged and accepted. 

The elements of ‘flow’ seem to possible in a self-managing team. The first Mastery is evident in the mixed skill set of the team. Also, if the team are learning orientated then they will seek to enhance their Mastery. They will become more capable in relation to the task. Clearly there should be autonomy. That surely is the purpose of the self-managing team? There is autonomy at the team level and again, as a consequence of the mixed skills set, there should be autonomy at an individual level. Finally, purpose. Purpose needs to be evident in the planning of the role of the team and is the foundation of establishing the self-managing team. A common purpose should be rooted in intrinsic motivators and established by the team under direction of the organisation at the outset. This would be achieved through the coaching that Wageman (2001) found to be just as important as the design of the team.

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose create Flow – the ability to direct your attention to the job in hand, to be in the moment in order to be productive. Being in flow and productive lead to better outcomes for the people we serve in our roles, be that service users, carers, or students. I’m minded of something I was told recently anecdotally. Someone I know works on a team where decision about service provision, and ultimately the money that is spent, is devolved to the team who meet regularly to agree each other’s decisions. I could tell by the tone in his voice as he was telling me this and the look on his face that working in such a way was a source of great joy. The team, with the skills and knowledge, and the permission, were managing themselves, in that area at least. This seemed to make for a happier worker. Happier workers manage stress more effectively and create a healthy worker effect that enhances resilience (Grant & Kinman, 2014). 

Everybody wins.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow London: Random House Books (Rider)

Grant, L. & Kinman, G. (2014) What is Resilience in Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice, L. Grant & G. Kinman London: Palgrave

Hannah, R. (2019) 4 Social Care Challenges We Can Tackle with Self-Management (Accessed 28th June 2020)

Mordue, S.J., Watson, L., & Hunter, S. (2020) How to Thrive in Professional Practice St. Albans: Critical Publishing

Pieterse, A.N., Hollenbeck, J.R., Van Knippenberg, D., Spitzmuller, M., Dimotakis, N., Karam. E.P., & Sleesman, D.J. (2019) Hierarchical leadership versus self-management in teams: Goal orientation diversity as moderator of their relative effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly 30 (2019) 101343

Wageman, R. (2001) How Leaders Foster Self-Managing Team Effectiveness: Design Choices Versus Hands-on Coaching ORGANIZATION SCIENCE, Vol. 12. No. 5, September-October 2001, 559-577

Webb, C. (2017) How to Have a Good Day London: Pan Books

Weerheim, W., Van Rossum, L., & Have, Wouter, D. T. H. (2019) Successful implementation of self-managing teams Leadership in Health Services Vol. 32 No. 1, 2019 pp. 113-128