How to Lead a Self-Managing Team

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To get work done, many companies organize employees into self-managing teams that are basically left to run themselves with some guidance from an external leader. In fact, comprehensive surveys report that 79% of companies in the Fortune 1,000 and 81% of manufacturing organizations currently deploy such “empowered,” “self-directed” or “autonomous” teams.1 Because of their widespread use, much research has been devoted to understanding how best to set up self-managing teams to maximize their productivity and effectiveness. Interestingly, though, relatively little attention has been paid to the leaders who must oversee such working groups.

At first, it seems contradictory: Why should a self-managing team require any leadership? After all, doesn’t the group manage itself? In actuality, though, self-managing teams require a specific kind of leadership. Even a team that is autonomous in terms of its activities and decision making must still continually receive direction from higher levels in the organization. And it also must report to that hierarchy through a person who is ultimately held accountable for the group’s performance. Many managers today are expected to fulfill the role of external leader, but most receive conflicting signals regarding how to go about it.2 Should they, for instance, be involved in their team’s decision-making process? If so, how should they participate without detracting from the group’s autonomy?

To investigate such issues, we conducted a study of 300 self-managing teams at a large manufacturing plant of a Fortune 500 corporation. (See “About the Research.”) We investigated both average- and superior-performing external leaders at that site to determine the behaviors that separated one group from the other. Our research has shown that, contrary to common perception, the best external leaders were not necessarily the ones who had adopted a hands-off approach, nor were they simply focused on encouraging team members in various ways.3 Instead, the external leaders who had contributed most to their team’s success excelled at one skill: managing the boundary between the team and the larger organization. That process required specific behaviors that can be grouped into four basic functions: relating, scouting, persuading and empowering. (See “The Work of the External Leader.”) External leaders who excelled at those capabilities were able to drive their teams to superior performance.



1. E.E. Lawler III, “High Involvement Management” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986); E.E. Lawler III, “Strategies for High Performance Organizations” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998); and G. Taninecz, T.H. Lee, A.V. Feigenbaum, B. Nagle and P. Ward, “Best Practices and Performances: Manufacturers Tackling Leading-Edge Initiatives Generally Reap the Best Results,” Industry Week, Dec. 1, 1997, 28–43.

2. M.M. Beyerlein, D.A. Johnson and S.T. Beyerlein, “Introduction,” in M.M. Beyerlein, D.A. Johnson and S.T. Beyerlein, eds., “Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams,” vol. 3 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1996), ix–xv; C.C. Manz and H.P. Sims Jr., “Searching for the ‘Unleader’: Organizational Member Views on Leading Self-Managed Groups,” Human Relations 37 (1984): 409–424; and C.C. Manz and H.P. Sims Jr., “Leading Workers To Lead Themselves: The External Leadership of Self-Managed Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 32 (1987): 106–128.

3. See C.C. Manz, “Leading Workers To Lead Themselves.”

4. R.E. Walton, “The Topeka Work System: Optimistic Visions, Pessimistic Hypotheses and Reality,” in R. Zager and M.P. Rosow, eds., “The Innovative Organization: Productivity Programs in Action” (Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press, 1982): 260–287.

5. R.E. Walton, “Work Innovations at Topeka: After Six Years,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 13 (1977): 422–433; and R.E. Walton, “The Topeka Work System.”

6. C.C. Manz, “Searching for the ‘Unleader.’ ”

7. M.M. Beyerlein, “Introduction”; and J.R. Hackman, “The Psychology of Self-Management in Organizations,” in M.S. Pallack and R.O. Perloff, eds., “Psychology and Work: Productivity, Change and Employment” (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1986), 89–136.

8. See, for example, E.E. Lawler III, “High Involvement Management”; R.E. Walton, “Work Innovations at Topeka”; and R.E. Walton, “The Topeka Work System.”

9. R.I. Beekun, “Assessing the Effectiveness of Sociotechnical Interventions: Antidote or Fad?” Human Relations 47 (1989): 877–897; and R.E. Walton and L.A. Schlesinger, “Do Supervisors Thrive in Participative Work Systems?” Organizational Dynamics 8 (winter 1979): 24–39.

10. S.G. Cohen, L. Chang and G.E. Ledford Jr., “A Hierarchical Construct of Self-Management Leadership and Its Relationship to Quality of Work Life and Perceived Work Group Effectiveness,” Personnel Psychology 50, no. 2 (summer 1997): 275–308; B.L. Kirkman and B. Rosen, “A Model of Work Team Empowerment,” in R.W. Woodman and W.A. Pasmore, eds., “Research in Organizational Change and Development,” vol. 10 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1997), 131–167; and B.L. Kirkman and B. Rosen, “Beyond Self-Management: Antecedents and Consequences of Team Empowerment,” Academy of Management Journal 42 (1999): 58–74.

11. S.G. Cohen, G.E. Ledford Jr. and G.M. Spreitzer, “A Predictive Model of Self-Managing Work Team Effectiveness,” Human Relations 49 (1996): 643–676; B.L. Kirkman, “Beyond Self-Management”; and R.E. Walton, “The Topeka Work System.”

12. C.C. Manz, “Leading Workers To Lead Themselves”; R. Wageman, “Critical Success Factors for Creating Superb Self-Managing Teams,” Organizational Dynamics 26 (summer 1997): 49–61; and R. Wageman, “How Leaders Foster Self-Managing Team Effectiveness: Design Choices Versus Hands-On Coaching,” Organization Science 12, no. 5 (2001): 559–577.

13. D.G. Ancona and D.F. Caldwell, “Bridging the Boundary: External Activity and Performance in Organizational Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 37, no. 4 (December 1992): 634–665.

14. See S.G. Cohen, “A Hierarchical Construct of Self-Management Leadership”; J.L. Cordery and T.D. Wall, “Work Design and Supervisory Practice: A Model,” Human Relations 38, no. 5 (1985): 425–441; and J.R. Hackman, “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

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