This summer I’ve interviewed 44 leaders in 4 organizations that are empowering their teams in their primary processes*. The organizations come from different sectors: public administration, health care, production and engineering. Which preliminary  lessons do I draw?

1) Self-managing teams are an illusion

We have to stop talking about self-managing or autonomous teams. It creates the false idea of freedom, while in reality work has become so complex and specialized that alignment and disciplined collaboration are more important than ever before. As stand alone employee or team, one can no longer be successful. Freedom is also limited by governance and organizational ambitions.

Teams are not an illusion. In engineering, interdisciplinary teamwork is the only way to solve complex customer demands. In health care, nurses need to work together to take care of their patients in a flexible way. Requests from citizens are handled in one team from A to Z. In production, operators need to see the bigger picture of the whole production line to meet targets of quantity and quality.

The challenge is not to make teams autonomous, but to make groups of people work as a team.

2) Leadership becomes more sophisticated

Teamwork needs leadership. Studies show over and over again that “leaders are the most critical factor of organizational teams” (Zaccaro et al., 2001, p. 452). But leadership is no longer a simple cascade of hierarchical leaders. Leadership has become sophisticated. Key questions are: 1) which leadership roles do we formalize, e.g. planning and monitoring, improving, coaching, innovating…? 2) Where do we formalize them: in teams, besides the team or above the team? 3) How do we formalize them: as roles, as positions or in processes and IT systems? 4) how many hierarchical layers do we need?

The answers to these four questions lead to numerous constellations. One organization we examined established two leader roles in each team: a people and a quality coach. This organization also redefined its management and staff functions to be servant. Another organization has chosen for strong unit leaders on the one hand and a dynamic system of “lead” roles for projects, expertise and key processes (e.g. quality) in the unit on the other hand. The latter are also part of coordinated communities of practice. In a third organization teams have a technical team lead inside their team, as well as a shift supervisor and production line coach. The effect of these choices depends on resource allocation, strength of top down dynamics, IT systems, corporate behavior and so on.

3) Strategic leadership intent

Sophisticated leadership structures lead to ambiguity and conflicts. Coaches need to respect the autonomy of teams while at the same time push for development.  Team leaders need to push for results and pull for motivation. Unit managers have to work together and compete for resources. Staff functions need to govern, being it in a supporting way. Top management needs to direct and also let go.

A natural way to solve ambiguity and conflicts is to install hierarchy. We see numerous examples of informal hierarchies or leaders falling back in hierarchical behavior of command and control in the studied organizations. This in turn results in less collaboration and motivation and undermines the ambition of a more dynamic leadership system.

Only a clear strategic intent about leadership can counter those natural reflexes: what is the basic function of a leader in the organization? Which kind of leadership behavior is accepted or not? How democratic does the organization wants to be? Without strategic clarity and conscious development of a desired leadership culture, no empowered team can survive in the long run.

Any comment?

* These interviews are part of a larger research project. The lessons we draw from the interviews will be developed into tools and leadership development actions. These will be implemented and tested during the two following years. We are still looking for organizations that want to join this research. Feel free to get in touch.

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