The Dangers of Self-managed Teams at Work

The Dangers of Self-managed Teams at Work

Self-managing teams, as a way of organizing work, is today a major trend in organizations. In today’s technology-driven and individualistic working culture companies are looking to push responsibility onto the employee as a way of enabling creativity and do away with so called restrictive hierarchies. Organizing work in teams without supervision from managers, giving the employee more responsibility to plan their day-to-day activities is believed to be the way of the future.

The problem with self-managing teams is not the idea in itself, but that the concept of “responsibility” can be unclear and an employee might believe that they should and/or can entirely “control” their work-life situation. The uncertainty surrounding “responsibility” is something we as master’s students of Human Resource Management and Development uncovered while writing a master’s thesis at an IT consulting firm in Europe.

The employees in our study described the self-managing aspects of their work as “freeing” and allowing them to “influence” how they solved problems for clients. For example they shared that they enthusiastically took on “responsibility” for competence development and learning at work. This willingness to shoulder responsibility for competence development and other work-life situations might be because “responsibility” today is considered a sign of advancement in an individual’s career. In other words becoming a leader and/or a resolution manager is today THE sign of success in the white-collar business world. Although the employees described “responsibility” as a great thing, they were unclear about what it really is. The employees described “responsibility” as being able to “control” their work-life situation to a greater extent than reasonable from an outsider’s perspective. The dangers with a blurred border between “responsibility” and “control” is that an employee cannot always control work-life situations like competence development because there are organizational and societal factors enabling or hindering these processes. No one is an island. Not only did we uncover uncertainty surrounding what “responsibility” is as separate from “control”, but also there existed another layer of confusion regarding what “responsibility” is in itself. Without a clear understanding of what “responsibility” is inside of a company employees will struggle to understand who they are supposed to be, do, and whether or not the quality they produce is acceptable. We heard employees asking themselves: Who am I supposed to be as a consultant? Which problems do I take responsibility for? Is what I am producing up to par?

As humans we are never in complete control over matters in life and when being “responsible”, which is being an influential part of an interdependent relationship with others, is confused with single-handedly being able to “control” outcomes this can cause stress. Stress is today one of the largest health problem in the work-life environment. One employee we interviewed talked about an unclear definition of “responsibility” and subsequent confusion surrounding the question who is in charge as a “lord of the flies scenario” where control is being fought over among employees. Those unable to define what “responsibility” is end up on the sidelines disempowered and in a state of inertia and confusion; again causing unnecessary stress.

We are not claiming that self-managing teams in themselves are “bad”, but if they are to exist they should be built by providing strong company values around what the concept of “responsibility” really is and looks like. Having strong collective values and a shared understanding of “responsibility” as in seeing oneself as influential, but not in “control”, could be a useful starting point. Strong values and clear definitions will create opportunities for employees to understand and create who they are as professionals, what they ought to be doing and how.

Inside the conversation of self-managing teams it should also be known that this way of organizing work is not just about being creative. The need for this way of organizing work has also sprung from economic pressure to save more on labor costs by reducing the number of managers needed. The problem with a company not being clear about self-managing teams also being an economic matter (alongside allowing more room for creativity) is that part of the problem is not being discussed. When problems are not being talked about in a direct way we limit the opportunity to solve them in the best way possible. When companies make a trend like self-managed teams a best practice this might not only cause stress among employees but companies may also miss out on other more effective ways of organizing for both creativity and profit. Being straight about the problem and creating strong company values guiding collective work efforts is a must if self-managing teams are to be the way of the future.

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