Why self-direction does not work (and self-organization does)

Self-directed teams do not always work out. And that’s a shame. The idea behind it is great: employees who are given more responsibility, think more actively and rise above themselves. This way of working gives satisfaction, makes people proud and ensures personal development. For the organisation, this means better and more efficient work and satisfied employees who will continue to work for longer. At least, that’s the idea. Unfortunately, in practice things are often different in self-managing teams. In this blog we explain how it can be done.

Self-steering: from micro-management to personal responsibility

The idea of
self-directed teams
is not wrong: you give the responsibility for the results to the employee himself and don’t put it only to the manager. This works very well for many people and many sectors. For example, for employees in the care sector. These are true professionals: they know their customers and clients and the work best and also experience any changes that come from outside. For example, care workers are no longer given a three-minute time slot to put on support stockings, but can arrange the tasks themselves. This works well for everyone: the employee uses his knowledge and experience and spends less time filling out forms, the client receives the best possible care, and the manager does not have to supervise.

Despite all these advantages self-directed teams work a long time
not always satisfactory
. What’s wrong? Below I will discuss the most important causes.

Why self-directed teams don’t work well yet

Reason 1: Indecision about cross-curricular topics

Self-directed teams often have a lot of trouble solving problems that are not about the subject matter. One example is the mutual arrangement of days off. Although the employees are jointly responsible for good planning so that the occupancy is optimal, each employee also has his or her own interests. For example, some are tied to school holidays, or a partner’s work schedule. Because the responsibility for these kinds of cross-curricular topics and agreements in self-managing teams is often divided, no one ultimately takes the decisions, or even conflicts arise.

Reason 2: Too big teams

A self-managing team of three to five people usually works fine, especially if they are high professionals. Think of researchers, or employees who communicate directly with customers. They often have a defined range of tasks and take their responsibilities. After all, when they don’t do their job properly, there are major consequences that customers notice immediately, and they want to avoid this. But when there are more than five people in a self-managed team, the problems arise. Then the responsibility spreads over several people and it is much easier to hide behind a colleague, or to “disappear”.

Reason 3: Too much interference from above

Not everyone is immediately convinced of the benefits of self-directed teams. Especially middle management and directors sometimes find it difficult to let go and interfere excessively in the work floor. This is understandable: strategists often come from the shop floor and have subsequently risen to managerial or other managing positions. However, they still have a feeling for the shop floor and they would like to remain involved in the way tasks are carried out. And this is exactly what they should not do. This interference is experienced by employees as a lack of trust from above and causes them to block in the performance of their tasks.

What’s it like?

The above stumbling blocks for the good functioning of self-directed teams are substantial, but not insurmountable. The self-direction is not the cause, it is in the next step: the self-organization. If you have those in order, you can reap the benefits of self-directed teams. Therefore, first take a good look at how you have divided the tasks in your organization, then clarify this and make agreements about it. The breakdown below is a
handy guide:

  • Senior management is concerned with the vision and strategy and not the execution. They focus on the “why” and the direction in which the organization wants to develop.
  • Middle management focuses on the tactical issues and is only concerned with formulating and monitoring the goals that support the vision and strategy of upper management. So they focus on the what question.
  • Professionals organize themselves into a self-managing team and focus on how they do the work (the “how“). They appoint one team member to take care of cross-curricular matters such as days off, team outings and care during illness.

In this way there is clarity in who is responsible for what and the professionals in the self-directed teams can occupy themselves with what they are good at: together with their team members doing their job as well as possible. In the execution they are let go by their manager, provided that the activities fit within the vision, strategy and objectives.

From self-steering to self-organisation

With this division of roles you can start reaping the benefits of more self-management, keep your employees involved and make use of new insights into managing in the economy of tomorrow. Want to know more about leadership in the
new economy
? How you can best
modern leader
How can you best develop as a
key questions
are important? Download the E-book Leadership in the Economy of Value below. Or
click here
for our leadership training courses.

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dr. Pim Valentijn

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