The Potential in Autonomous Work Teams

Autonomous work teams have the potential to increase efficiency by giving employees greater buy-in.

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“The team has to play a key role at deciding ‘are you a good fit?’ ” Russell says.

That question sometimes applies after the team is assembled. “In some cases, [self-directed] teams are also are given the responsibility to remove non-performing members from the team,” Carter says.

But it shouldn’t fall into the trap of only choosing people who think the same way, Russell says. “A healthy team will look for diversity, look for divergent perspectives, and still invite people who are aligned with the vision, the values, and the collaborative environment that the team has built upon.”

A lack of diversity can lead to groupthink, which results when the team places too great a priority on supporting each other, says Lynne MacDonald, a fellow of London’s Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

“Although a cohesive self-managed team may create a sense of trust and respect between team members, overly cohesive teams can lead to ‘groupthink’: Team members are more likely to conform with team norms than raise issues that may upset other team members,” MacDonald wrote in an article for Chron.com. “This may lead to reduced effort or stifled innovation.”

Groupthink can also lead the team into poor relationships with others in the company, says Jerry Bouma of Toma & Bouma Management Consultants (tomaandbouma.com).

“An autonomous team has the potential to be the best change agent, or it can be the worst,” Bouma says. “If for example, the team has built relationships and respect within the organization, it can be very effective. If, however, it takes an attitude that ‘we know more than you,’ and perpetuate an ‘us versus them’ culture, it will create tensions and prove to be ineffective.”

Another potential pitfall is confusion within the team over tasks.

“For example, people simply may assume roles based on their functions and positions — then quickly begin to notice duplication of efforts,” consultant Beth Yates wrote in a report for Interaction Associates (interactionassociates.com). “This looks like: ‘Wait a minute, Susie and I are both interviewing stakeholders for the marketing rollout — what gives?’ ”

This kind of confusion can happen when tasks are clear but the details of the work process aren’t; it can lead to members assuming that a given task is someone else’s job.

Related to this is more basic uncertainty about roles within the team. A team’s leader might think he has made the roles clear, but members might interpret his message in different ways. “This creates a lack of accountability that leads to critical deliverables falling through the cracks,” Yates writes.

AWT Jerry Bouma

The burden of leadership

This is why, just as autonomous teams have greater than normal responsibility, so do their leaders.

The selection process for leadership can vary. Some are elected by the team; others are designated ahead of time. However it’s done, the leader should have some sort of background, or at least aptitude, in managing people, either through experience or special training.

Leaders of autonomous work teams have to lead by teaching, not doing. Above all, they must, as much as possible, turn problems or challenges into opportunities for the team to learn.

“In autonomous work teams, the manager is a coach — a person who has to develop the team members,” Levenson says. “So in order for an autonomous work team to work well, the manager cannot be jumping in to try to save them. Her job is to be coach and to help them be better, not to go in there and make the decisions for them and do the troubleshooting for them when problems arise.”

By the same token, management should take a somewhat hands-off approach with autonomous teams. The idea is that the team should be able to both set goals and operate without prior feedback or review from above. Of course, some level of engagement by management is inevitable.

“A self-managed team is not an entity in and of itself,” Russell says. “It’s kind of up to the larger organization in the end.” Carter says that a team’s effectiveness should be assessed periodically, every month or at least every quarter.

The basic point of a self-directed team is to use loyalty as a superior substitute for duty, obligation — or fear.

As Russell says, “You get a high level of engagement by members of the team, because they feel great ownership and responsibility and accountability to the team, and less to a boss, so to speak.”

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