Teamwork : Requirements of a Self-Managed Team Leader

R.V. Armstrong Associates is a publishing and training firm established in 1987 to improve organizational performance, quality systems, competitive growth and profitability.

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Organizations are benefiting from the advantages of teams by using more of them in a wide variety of ways.  Cross-functional teams are regularly being formed and commissioned by management to manage projects, design or improve products or processes, resolve chronic problems or to conduct research on new equipment and technologies.  Self-managed teams are active in some companies managing responsibilities associated with their everyday work.  Without defining their style, many successful leaders of these teams are using self-managed team leadership principles and processes to improve the performance and to achieve the desired

Self-managed team leadership is quite different from traditional leadership and provides an alternative to traditional leader’s role.  It affords the leader an opportunity to experience different methods that neutralize the issues oftentimes associated with the traditional leadership model.  The self-managed team leader is most at home in the Team Based Organization (TBO) where his or her style is supported and in line with the culture and values of the organization.  However, a staff member, supervisor or manager in a traditional organization can learn to become a self-managed team leader if his or her supervisor, the organization’s culture and paradigms of the organization will permit him or her to do so. 

Self-managed team leaders lead without positional authority. Traditional leaders function outside of their subordinate work group and use positional authority  to provide instruction, conduct communication, develop action plans and give orders on what is to be accomplished.  If necessary, positional authority includes the right to discipline a subordinate if he fails to comply with orders or meet requirements. In practice, the need for a leader to discipline is seldom needed or exercised, but subordinates recognize that their supervisor has the authority to take disciplinary action if the situation warrants it.  Relationships between supervisor and subordinates are maintained at arm's length to ensure objectivity in making assignments and reviewing performance.   The focus of the leader's attention is on meeting the needs of his supervisor and the organization. Two-way communications and positive response to a leader’s direction is desirable, but not required.  

Self-managed team leadership is moving inside one’s subordinate work group to lead.  In the self-managed team leader's role, the leader decides to permanently or temporarily set aside positional authority and to move inside the work group to provide direction, communication, group process facilitation, coordination and support.  When a leader has not been delegated positional authority from higher-level management and is a member of the work group, none of the traditional issues related to positional authority are present.  However, sometimes the process breaks down because the noncommissioned leader thinks the proper and most effective way to lead is by following the traditional leadership model. 

To move inside the work group, the traditional leader announces to subordinate staff members that they are being delegated the authority to manage a defined area of responsibility or to make a decision.  The team has the responsibility and authority for reaching consensus decisions that everyone can support.  The leader makes it clear he or she will act as the team's facilitator to coordinate the work, but will not make any independent decisions related to the delegated responsibility area.  He or she notes that the team will be held accountable for the outcome of its decisions and actions. As a team leader experiences success and recognizes the benefits of this process, he or she will define more areas for collective responsibility and decision-making and spend more and more time inside of the group. 

While team leaders do not have the power of positional authority, they do enjoy the authority that comes from:

  • their ability to communicate and represent the team's interests, 
  • a desire to help each member to develop and use their skills,
  • a demonstration of concern for each member and the team,
  • the ability to facilitate group processes,
  • a knowledge of the group’s work processes,
  • the ability to help the team to maintain its focus, and
  • setting an example thorough one's behavior, personal values, energy and actions.

The self-managed team leader fulfills a skilled team role similar to that of captain in a team sport, but this role does not carry with it special status. Status is not at issue because the leader maintains or accepts equal status with the other members of the group.  The leader is not in a position to give orders, to define or prescribe certain levels of individual or team performance.  The leader holds equal responsibility and accountability for the group’s performance with each other team member.  Ideas, options and collective decisions on how best to accomplish the purpose and goals of the team are encouraged and supported by the team leader. 

Self-managed team leadership defines a different role for the leader.  The leader is not responsible for making decisions, developing action plans or giving orders.  In these situations, the team is given the responsibility, authority and accountability for managing a defined area of responsibility.  When the work group is given control over one or more defined areas of team responsibility, it is the leader’s role to use self-managed leadership skills and systematic processes to help the team to operate effectively and efficiently.  Everyone in the group is encouraged to contribute by communicating and promoting their ideas, by “hitch hiking” on the ideas of others and by exercising judgment to narrow down ideas or options.  Everyone recognizes that since the group makes decisions and develops action plans, the group will also be held accountable for the outcomes of their management actions.

When a person accepts a position as a leader of a self-managed team or plays the role of a self-managed team leader, he or she accepts the challenge of becoming both an exceptional leader and an exceptional person.  In effect, the team leader becomes accountable to the team for his or her leadership performance.  The team leader’s orientation is toward meeting the needs and requirements of team members, a higher-level management authority and the organization. 

With the above noted understanding of the self-managed team leader’s role, we can now briefly define several of the requirements for effective team leadership. 

The most important single factor in becoming a successful self-managed team leader is a servant attitude.  To have such an attitude, one must have or develop a sincere desire to assist the work group to accomplish its responsibility by bringing out the best qualities and contribution of each team member.  This is something that cannot be taught.  It requires an inner sense security, self-worth and self-control along with a desire to see others succeed.  It is the cornerstone to successfully fulfilling such roles as teaching, coaching or pastoring. 

The team leader's orientation should be "How can I help create a working environment where my fellow team members are willing to exert themselves to meet personal and team goals?"  The leader's mission is to free up team members to act collectively to use their intellect, creativity, diversity, talents and skills to manage defined areas of team responsibility and to develop and carry out action plans that capture the commitment and enthusiasm of everyone. 

Some of the characteristics that are often said of effective team leaders by team members are as follows: 

  • The team leader is a fellow worker and friend, not a supervisor; 
  • leads by example, not by giving directions; 
  • is a servant, not a master; 
  • is a peacemaker, not a warrior; 
  • is a coordinator, not an order giver; 
  • is a facilitator, not an individual decision-maker; and
  • is a communications link, not a communications owner. 

The team leader helps team members to identify their unique abilities and talents and then seeks to provide the environment, resources and opportunities that will enable them to use their special abilities to experience meaning from their work and contribute to team goals.  The leader recognizes that work can be a desirable and meaningful activity and that people seek to derive fulfillment, purpose and joy from their employment situation. 

To accomplish this, the leader finds ways to blend the needs of the organization with the higher level needs of team members.  The leader takes an active interest in each person in the group and strives to build positive relationships with team members and among team members. In effect the leader is in a continual process of finding ways to build and strengthen each member’s skill set and self-worth based on their contribution to the group.

The secondary skills to team leader success are learned and can be developed by most anyone interested in leading a self-managed team.  The key skills are group process facilitation, team problem solving, team decision-making and team communications. Each of these skills requires knowledge of systematic processes and tools to move a group forward to accomplishing its mission in as efficient and effective way possible. 

Group process facilitation is the use of consistent processes, methods, and tools that aid team members in agreeing on how best to conduct business, accomplish work and manage defined areas of team responsibility .  Every time the team needs to conduct a meeting, make a decision, develop an action plan or resolve a problem, the team leader uses group process facilitation skills to enable team members to work together to carry out its management responsibilities.  Much of the team leader’s interaction with team members in conducting day-to-day work activities requires the use of group process facilitation skills. 

The team leader facilitates the team decision-making and problem solving processes.  He or she uses systematic step-by-step processes on a consistent basis to help members to make unanimous or consensus decisions or to resolve problems.  He or she helps to make the team and the organization become more effective by harnessing the power of collective management control, collective decision-making and problem solving over defined areas of team responsibility. 

The team leader is the logical choice to handle the formal communications responsibilities for the team.  The leader coordinates the work of the team with process suppliers and customers and with managers and staff personnel. He or she plans team meetings, prepares and distributes a meeting agenda to team members and facilitates team meetings.  The leader reviews meeting minutes, posts a copy on the minutes on the team's communications board and sends a copy to the next higher-level of management. 

The team leader acts as the channel through which communications flow both inside of and outside of the team.  On issues concerning the team's support or performance, the leader takes care to ensure that he or she is communicating the consensus of the group and not the leader's  own position. The leader thinks and communicates in terms of "we". 

For more information on the role of self-managed team leadership, refer to my book, Self-Managed Team Leadership—A guide for team leaders.


Ó Copyright Ron Armstrong, 2005


R.V. Armstrong & Associates
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