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By Lauren Keller Johnson

Lauren Keller Johnson is a freelance writer living in Harvard, MA

Take a good look at the team you manage. Does every member of the team step up and perform leadership tasks like solving problems, planning projects, analyzing performance, and strategizing for the future? Do they continually share knowledge without prompting and push the team to do better? Do they seem committed, energized, flexible, well rounded, and self-sufficient? If you’ve answered no to most of these questions, your team is leader-managed, not self-managed. And you’re missing out on an opportunity to extract a better performance by getting out of the way.

As Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff explain in their book A Team of Leaders, self-managed teams often deliver better results than those that are leader managed. That’s because their members know how to handle a diverse array of tasks, work on their own toward a common goal, and take accountability for their results. Equally important, self-managing teams produce teams of leaders.

Developing people is a key responsibility of any manager, and if you build a self-managing team, you’ll go far toward fulfilling this mandate. You’ll create new value for your organization by unleashing your team’s full potential both as a group and as individuals.

It may not seem like a natural act for a manager to stop “managing” in the traditional sense of the word, but when you allow teams to become self-directed, you are not only freeing them from the confines any directed leadership may be inadvertently imposing, you are freeing yourself to concentrate on tasks that add greater value to the organization.

You’ll start serving more as an advisor and facilitator rather than a “boss.” And you’ll have more time to do strategic work—like analyzing market trends and identifying their implications for your company’s future, or improving how your team interacts with other groups in the organization.

Teams aren’t born self-managing; managers have to help them evolve in that direction. According to Gustavson and Liff, teams advance through five stages in their journey toward complete self-management. Check out the table to consider which stage your team may be in.

Stage Defining characteristics
1 You’re calling all the shots, through one-on-one interactions between you and each team member.
2 You’re still calling all the shots, but with some interactions between team members.
3 Some team members are stepping up to share leadership responsibilities.
4 Most team members are providing leadership on key team activities.
5 All team members are stepping up to share leadership.


Move your team to next stage

If you’d like to advance your team to the next stage in its self-management journey, what should you do? As Gustavson and Liff explain, one critical step is to help your team members understand their own and one another’s thinking and learning-style preferences.

When members of a team understand these preferences, they accelerate their own learning and that of others. They capitalize on the differences that each person brings to the table. They unleash one another’s creativity. And they communicate, make decisions, and solve problems more effectively—skills essential for self-management and high performance.

For instance, suppose Janine, a member of your team, prefers to learn and make decisions by analyzing facts and numbers and using logic to draw conclusions. Pietr, another team member, prefers to learn and make decisions by bouncing ideas off others and building models and prototypes.

With such diverse thinking and learning-style preferences, chances are high that Janine and Pietr will take decidedly different approaches to solving problems and planning projects in the team. Janine might demand detailed documentation, while Pieter might want to talk things through or sketch out rough ideas. Conflict could erupt. But if they understand their own and one another’s preferences, they can adapt to each other’s styles—working more effectively together and generating higher-quality results sooner.

There are a number of tools and instruments out there that can help teams diagnose their thinking and learning-style preferences. Gustavson and Liff frequently use the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which organizes preferences into four categories in what’s known as the Whole Brain Thinking Model. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is another well-known tool. The VARK model (which measures individuals’ preferences for learning through visual, auditory, reading, or kinesthetic means) is one more.

Check with your company’s human resources department to see if it provides such instruments or workshops featuring the tools. If it doesn’t, research such tools yourself and use your findings to spark dialogue in your team about differences in learning and thinking styles—and how team members can use those differences to boost their self-sufficiency and performance.

Want to know more?

Wondering which stage your team is in toward becoming self-managed? Check out Chapter 1, “Creating Advantage Through the Five-Stage Team Development Model” in Gustavson and Liff’s book A Team of Leaders. You’ll find lots of examples, from diverse industries, of what team member and leader behavior looks like at each stage. You’ll also find more information on common tools that can help you accelerate your team through the self-management development process.


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