Leaders in Self-managing Teams: An Oxymoron?

Posted by jlubans on January 18, 2012

One of the best parts of my Leading from the Middle workshop in Riga at the end of November 2011 was the student panel: three students from the management class I taught in the spring semester at the University of Latvia. They told the 25 workshop participants about what worked and what could have been better about their self-managing teams. Since the students spoke in Latvian I did not fully (hah!) understand their conclusions. One of the panelists, Aija Uzula, kindly sent me an English summary of her remarks:

“1. I spoke about my own experience of being led by a … supervisor … and then about changes that happened after she got sick for 6 months. During her absence our department changed a lot: everyone found her/his own place in work mechanism and we worked as team. Before that we only did what our supervisor ordered us to do. We learned how to work without anyone ordering us what to do, we had our own experience in ups and downs; it gave us courage to have our own opinion about things. We all tried to lead and to follow without anyone telling anyone else what to do. For me it was great experience, a school of life :)
“2. And, I explained about the projects we worked on in class…. For me the best one was Books2Eat, then interviewing women leaders and worst of all was the final project. I believe that a project is successful if team members are good in cooperation; also, (success) depends on team members' personal issues and characters. (Note: When Aija and I talked, she also mentioned the importance of knowing your teammates. If they are “strangers” then much more group dynamic work needs to be done before all can be comfortable interacting. She reminded me that the Books2Eat and leader interview teams were self-selected. I had appointed the final project’s teams!)
“3. Conclusion. It would be good to take (your) course for all workplace team members not only for one or two, as it was in my experience, so all could get important information and knowledge about how to lead and how to be led, how to follow etc.”

Given Aija’s assessment and from what I understood from the panel presentation, I have taken a second look at what each final project team said they would change and/or what should have gone better. (Each project team's full listing out of "goods" and "not-so-goods" appeared earlier as a blog entry here.)

Here are the “do better” items common to all three teams:
Unclear roles of team members;
Lack of agreement on project topic;
Need to improve group dynamics, including communication and facilitation (form, storm, norm, perform);
Lack of time;
Need for a leader to motivate, make decisions;
Complicated logistical matters; and,
Better teamwork was needed.

Perhaps obviously, each team would have benefited from someone taking on a leadership role. Why did this not happen. After all, they were self-managing; they could have elected a leader. Each group could have spelled out/distributed leader roles. One group might have wanted a boss-type leader. Another group, a leader to guide the group to a decision.

I have learned much from the panel’s feedback. If I were to repeat this assignment I would have the project teams work during class so I could observe and coach their dynamics. Better yet, I would make clear that self-management does not exclude a leader. That would make for an intriguing discussion, how could a self-managing team have a leader?

Thomas Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, tells us what the bees taught him about leading humans:

As head of a faculty department he:
1. States the group’s object
2. Defines the group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps the group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when a decision is reached

Next time, I am going to emphasize these roles so each team member better understands what a leader can and ought to do. And, I would also make use of self-appointed project teams!

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Posted by Eva on January 18, 2012  •  23:14:43

Nice summary, John. I think the student whose "boss" fell ill took your lessons to heart with positive results!

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