Why self-managing teams are a hoax

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In short, self management simply means ‘no bosses’. That’s it (Geoff Roberts)

Thinking back on your highschool school days, do you remember the popular child with its entourage deciding which music, movies and influences were in, or out; whose parties everyone wanted to be invited to? Did you also have a bully at school who terrorized the schoolyard with his accomplices, when no supervising adults were around? Perhaps you also remember the importance of being ‘befriended’ with children in the class whose parents had a swimming pool; and I am sure you also had someone in class whose homework you and everybody else wanted to copy. 


I thought the concept of self-managing teams had already died a well deserved death, until I recently saw a clip on YouTube. The clip advocates the concept of self-managing teams by comparing the productivity of self-managing teams with the traffic flow through a roundabout. Different scenarios are compared to ensure the most effective flow to cross an intersection: with or without human supervision, with traffic lights and finally with the creation of a roundabout. Spoiler alert: the roundabout wins. Moral of the story is that in the absence of central control participants will self-regulate the responsibility to cross the intersection, and that by doing so productivity and safety will increase.

I am stunned by the enthusiasm for this clip, because I think the parallel between teamwork and crossing an intersection is incredibly weak. I would even go so far as to say it is non-existent. 

Crossing an intersection is a single one-off task (working in a team requires working on a series of tasks), and, after performing this single task, no lasting relationships or interdependencies remain. However, forming productive long term relationships is a must for any team, exactly because of these interdependencies.

All teams have leaders

The reason why self-managing teams do not exist is because proponents only focus on ‘legitimate power’, power someone has because it has been given to him or her by a more senior body (e.g. to the Head of a Business Unit by the CEO of the corporation, or to a general by the field marshall).

However, according to French and Raven, in addition to legitimate power, there are at least four other sources of power:

  • Reward power – Power originating from the ability to provide people with material and immaterial rewards (the example of the child at school whose parents had a swimming pool)
  • Coercive power – Power originating from the ability to punish people if they do not comply (the terrorizing bully at school)
  • Expert power – Power originating from unique knowledge and/or capabilities (the child whose homework all children wanted to copy)
  • Referent power – Power originating from the admiration and desire of followers to gain approval (the popular child in the class, or charismatic leaders in business or politics).

If we look at self-managing teams from this perspective, we see that one source of power (legitimate power) might have disappeared, but that the other four do still exist.

The popularity of the concept of self-managed teams

The concept of self-managed teams has been popular since the 1940’s. The reasons for the popularity of self-managing teams are various, but broadly seem to fall in two categories: 

  • Performance – Self-managed teams offer the possibility to overcome the disadvantages of traditional hierarchical organizations. The premise is that by delegating decision making power to the experts responsible for getting the job done, the team will operate more effectively and efficiently (eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy) 
  • Normative – The second group of reasons is more idealistic in nature, and refers to the advantages for individuals, like self-realization.

How do equals become ‘more equal’ in self-managing teams?

Anyone who has ever been part of a project team or task force without a formal leader knows that teams almost always quickly establish an informal hierarchy, just like in our high school example. The process of ‘how’ this happens depends on a number of factors. However, more often, it revolves around a (combination of) the personalities of the people involved (referent power), and the expertise required to get the job done (expert power).

From the moment this hierarchy is established, the group really is not ‘self-managed’ anymore. Instead there is now likely to be an informal leader who controls and coordinates the work in the group ‘on behalf of the group’, as well as represents the group externally. Over time, this person will also start to exert reward and coercive power.

This means that the only difference between a formal ‘boss-led’ team and a self-managed one, is that, instead of a person being formally and transparently appointed as ‘the boss’ by the leadership of the organisation, a ‘de facto’ boss has ‘emerged’ as the result of an informal and often non-transparent process. 

Do self-managed teams work?

The question is how beneficial this ‘formally not existing leadership’ is for the organisation and for the team members. Difficult as this may already be in temporary project teams or task forces, this is especially the case for self-managed ‘intact’ teams.

The consequence for the organisation is that it ends up with a group of people without a clear reporting line or individual accountability. That is not a problem as long as the team delivers the required results, but becomes a problem if this is not the case; especially if this is the result of ‘free ridership’. Who should the organization hold accountable? Should all team members be given a bad performance review and should none of them receive a bonus?

Another question is how comfortable individual team members are with these ‘de-facto bosses’. If an individual has an issue with their de-facto boss, to whom should they escalate this? If they feel they are being mobbed by other team members, who should intervene? If they feel they are being held accountable for results they cannot influence, because it was a ‘team decision’ they were against, with whom should they discuss this? 

Remember: ‘In short, self management simply means ‘no bosses.’ That’s it.’ (Geoff Roberts).

For all these reasons, I personally would be very uncomfortable to work in a ‘self-managing’ team. 

Where is the evidence?

Furthermore I am also not sure how many successful self-managed teams there actually are. 

Given the fact that the phenomenon of self-managing teams is already 50-60 years old, one would expect a widespread application if this concept would be really so successful. Although I have worked with a number of organizations in different countries and industries, I personally have never come across  any example of a team with no boss.

I also do not know of many convincing and large-scale examples in literature or business publications.

In that sense, self-managed teams remind me a little of the ‘Blue Ocean’ strategy concept. A great theory that intellectually makes a lot of sense; however, despite the fact that the theory was already launched in 2005, there are only a handful of convincing and large-scale examples of its application. 

A reason for this might be that scientific studies indicate that self-managed teams have a great potential on the one hand, but that realizing this potential requires meeting quite an impressive number of conditions on the other. These conditions include for instance changes to the corporate organization structure, company policies and culture (attitude towards responsibility and accountability), as well as different reward systems (team-based rewards, performance-based rewards, skill-based rewards and social incentives).

What about having a sense of purpose?

Sometimes having a strong sense of purpose is seen as the panacea for all of this. Inspiring ideals should overcome potentially dysfunctional behaviours. 

Unfortunately the iron law of oligarchy, formulated by Robert Michels in 1911, predicts that this is highly unlikely. Based on empirical studies about the way ideologically driven organizations like socialist parties and trade unions organized themselves, the iron law of oligarchy predicts that all organizations will, in due course, be run by a ‘leadership class’ seeking to consolidate their power.

Are self-managed teams really the work of the devil?

Does that mean there is nothing good about the ideas behind self-managing teams and/or that they cannot serve as a source of inspiration? No, a number of concepts that are closely related to self-managing teams make a lot of sense. In this context I admire for instance the work Vas Narasimhan is doing to ‘unboss’ Novartis. 

Throughout my career as a management consultant, I had the opportunity to witness the effectiveness of multi-disciplinary teams and task forces, the power and creativity individuals displayed when enabled to work in an agile manner and empowered to be the best they could be in the workplace. In the same vein I am a staunch advocate of flat organizations and of regular and deep engagement between top leaders and ‘the rank and file’ of their organizations. 

These instruments enable leaders to be the best they can be to inspire, set ambitious goals, make all necessary resources available, even when money is tight, but most of all: be accountable. Accountable when their teams deliver, but also, and especially, in situations when the team is not able to deliver.

“To be as good as it can be, a team has to buy into what you as the coach are doing. They have to feel you’re a part of them and they’re a part of you.”

– Bobby Knight

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© Dirk Verburg 2021

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author

Picture credit: Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” (1992), Photograph by AF archive / Alamy

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