Self-management concepts, self-manged teams and organisations are hot topics of the current decade. Many organisations are opting for lean management, flattening their structures and moving into team-based autonomous units to prepare themselves for the complexities of the business environment.
However, I wonder how well these terminologies are understood and implemented. I fear that most organisations will soon fail to become lean and flat and use self-management or shared leadership as a scapegoat for their failures. It wouldn’t be surprising if most of these restructuring organisations would return to their previous centralised structures in the near future.
Understanding the SMT concept
Self-managed teams (SMTs) are effective units and can help organisations become effective and competitive. They are not only good at using resources effectively but are also excellent platforms to enhance collective leadership capacities within organisations. The secret to their potential for effectiveness and capacity development is shared leadership practice.
Besides the benefit of autonomy for effectiveness, SMT work provides excellent opportunities to learn and develop leadership capacities for the organisation and individuals. Many scholars (e.g., Day & Liu 2018; Friedrich et al. 2009; Raelin 2018) argue that shared leadership in SMTs is a self-feeding practice; engaging in leadership further enhances capabilities to engage in leadership activities.
In SMTs, leadership influence is not exerted by one formally assigned person. Instead, it is shared by individual members, indicating that all members hold responsibility for some leadership functions and are simultaneously leaders and followers.
Sharing leadership is a dynamic process of mutual influence that occurs among individual members and allows them to influence others and be influenced by others. Within this dynamic and reciprocal process, individual members have opportunities to develop their leadership capacities by practising leadership and observing others’ practices in different functions. Going to the unknown and facing hardship are the primary sources of learning and development.
Working in teams of leaders rather than in lead teams of followers
Successful self-management implementation requires certain conditions to work properly. Members of these non-traditional organisations need to learn how to work in self-managed teams as members with equal status or, in other words, work in teams of leaders rather than lead teams of followers.
On the other hand, organisations need to develop sustainable and reinforcing leadership development strategies and make them part of their daily operations long-term rather than investing in individuals in positions by taking a short-term interventionist approach.
Although the self-management concept requires autonomy, the often-used “sink or swim” approach is not a good choice. These teams, primarily newly formed ones and the ones with challenging tasks, need well-planned and timely coaching support and interventions. The support is also essential for teams with members from diverse cultural (and organisational culture) backgrounds. Some examples of such teams are cross-functional teams, teams that are formed post-merger/acquisitions.
Teachings of SMT leadership in Haaga-Helia
Autonomous ways of working in SMTs have been practised among students at Haaga-Helia Porvoo Campus within their project work. As a senior lecturer in Human Resources Management and Leadership subjects, I have supervised and coached these teams for over a decade.
As part of my PhD studies, I conducted longitudinal research on how working in SMTs enhances the collective leadership capacity at the unit level. I followed two cohorts on their three projects over 18 months. The study’s findings demonstrated that SMTs provide good leverage for learning and development. However, over time there is a declining positive response to leadership development opportunities, and there is a more substantial impact on knowledge than on actual behaviour and performance.
Results also showed that the success of SMTs is not automatic and the “sink or swim” approach is inappropriate. These teams need coaching support. The four leadership areas where support is of utmost importance for such teams are team-building, planning (setting up KPIs), monitoring and providing feedback.
In conclusion, by enhancing self-managed ways of working through timely support, organisations can develop sustainable leadership development strategies and simultaneously make them part of their daily operations in the long term and reach sustainable competitive advantage.
Day, D., & Liu, Z. 2018. What is wrong with leadership development and what might be done with it. What’s Wrong With Leadership?: Improving Leadership Research and Practice.
Friedrich, T. L., Vessey, W. B., Schuelke, M. J., Ruark, G. A., & Mumford, M. D. 2009. A framework for understanding collective leadership: The selective utilization of leader and team expertise within networks. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(6), 933–958.
Raelin, J. A. 2018. What are you afraid of: Collective leadership and its learning implications. Management Learning, 49(1), 59–66.