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Do We Really Need Managers? Making the Case for Self-Managed Teams

by Danielle N. Paula, Technical Assent consultant

Organizations don’t need managers and employees don’t want them. This a bold statement, but it’s the way of everyday business at a number high-performing Fortune 1000 companies and was also covered in depth at the recent Business Agility 2017 conference.

The main problem with managers is that having so many levels of management can be extremely inefficient due to the several communication layers and general overhead purpose these managers serve. It’s not only inefficient, it could also be driving away top talent. One well known Gallup Poll found that over 50% of respondents who were seeking new employment positions, left because of their current managers.

Now, there are a few immediate ways to address this issue: (1) continuously train managers to become more efficient and more engaged with their subordinates or (2) get rid of them. In this article, we’ll exploring Option 2.

Multiple layers of management are found in hierarchical organizations. These organizations use a top-down, command-and-control style of management with the C-level suite executives at the top, worker-bees at the bottom, and a lot of layers in between (the management). Some hierarchical organizations organize themselves that way because it’s the default; it’s what everyone is used to. Others may follow McGregor’s Theory X that employees are lazy, don’t want to work, and need a manager hovering over them to ensure work gets completed.

Here at Technical Assent, we employ a relatively flat structure organized around self-managed teams. We operate under the assumption that employees are self-motivated, want to make valuable contributions, and can self-manage their tasks and deliverables to better achieve organizational goals. We are not alone. In a survey of Fortune 1000 companies, 80% reported they are, or plan to, move to self-managed teams.

Though the number of Fortune 1000 companies supporting self-managed teams is large, in the overall spectrum of businesses and organizations, this is not the norm. For example, the largest employer in the U.S., the U.S. Federal Government, still uses a top-down management approach. Additionally, even for companies supporting self-managed teams, the level of implementation varies widely. Some companies may only use self-managed teams for their developers and then assign a manager to oversee several of those small self-managed teams. Others, like SEMCO, don’t set schedules for the manufacturing plant line workers, instead allowing workers to set their own hours.

How Self-Managed Teams Work

Self-managed teams take ownership of the projects and tasks necessary to achieve an agreed upon goal shifting accountability from the manager to the employee. The “when, where, and how” are determined by the self-managed team, not by a manager. Team members are responsible for creating solutions to self-identified problems. They are given the trust and authority to implement necessary solutions to achieve organizational goals without approval from a manager.

This approach simplifies the work process and employees make decisions that directly affect business outcomes. It doesn’t force employees into a mold, which in turn opens the door to more collaboration and creativity.

Instead of relying on specialized functional silos, teams are cross-functional. Team members support each other by allowing each member’s expertise to shine. This increased feeling of being a valued participant encourages empowerment and ownership in their work products, which is not usually seen in top-down structures and can directly impact the success of the business.

This isn’t to say that self-managed teams are always entirely responsible for determining what the goals of the organization are. There is almost always a leader that the employees support (not report to) that is responsible for setting and communicating the strategic and tactical goals of the company. The team members are then given the responsibility and authority to creatively execute and deliver the results, not individual tasks.

When It Makes Sense to Shift to Self-Managed Teams

While many companies are making the switch, self-managed teams may not work for every type of organization, so it is important to understand its advantages and disadvantages before making the leap. I’ll be covering this in further detail in next week’s article. (This article is Part One of a three-part series.)