Self Managed, Manager-less Teams?

There's a lot written about self managed teams so I have deliberately kept this blog short just to get you thinking about whether self management is right for your particular team. Self management can be applied to varying degrees in teams in terms of a team having no manager whatsoever through to a managed team where team members have a small degree of autonomy. Many project teams can be totally self directed where leadership is spread across the team with the 'team leader' role being rotated across the team members. On the other hand many teams will have a fixed team leader or manager. It all depends on what sort of team you are and what the key purpose and goal of that team is. However, in this short blog, I am going to relate the story of a team manager led team who became self managed and then returned to a team manager led team. There are some great learns from what this team went through.

The team is composed of 5 members and were active in the field of learning and development. The team was composed of 1 team manager and 4 L&D Coaches. The team was a new start team and had come together very successfully - and quickly. This was due to the manager being very people focused and a strong advocate of structured teamwork. Having 4 coaches, all with good commercial experience, and a similar passion for teamwork helped and after an excellent first meeting where the team got to get to know each other agreed their purpose and goals, and created their team charter, the team was 'buzzing' to start to work on their plan and allocate responsibilities as regards who was working on what projects. The team were then hit with a major shock when the team manager announced that they were leaving to take up a new role in another company. The team were initially stunned by this but being experienced and mature team members they quickly rallied together to convince senior management that the team would continue 'manager less' until such time a replacement manager was recruited. Whilst this recruitment may take 6 months, the case put forward to senior management was good enough to leave them convinced that the team would still deliver on their commitments to the organisation. As long as senior management were kept informed of progress then the team could proceed as proposed.

The team quickly revisited their team charter, reviewed the aims and goals and reworked their roles, responsibilities and objectives. The behaviours and attitudes that they agreed first time around still stood. The expectations were reviewed and updated given that the manager 'dynamic' had changed. The stakeholder plan was also updated. The team decided to work on projects in small project pairs, making sure that the individual team members' strengths were used to ensure the right outcomes from each of the projects and that mutual support and positive peer pressure was to the fore. The team's motivation was high and all members were really keen to make an impact and to show that they could deliver excellence whilst still operating without a designated manager. Things progressed nicely. The plan was on schedule with all projects on track. The leadership was rotated so that all team members got the opportunity to update senior management on the team's plan. The key senior manager who was 'overseeing' the team was impressed but was still determined to reinstate the original team structure and recruit a new manager. They were also keen to get someone external to the organisation albeit one member of the present team was keen to be at least considered for the manager position. However, even they were becoming less interested in the manager role given that the team was working really well together and everyone was enjoying working as a team - and delivering results.

Finally, around 5 months down the line a new manager was appointed. The new manager's credentials appeared good as they had a number of years of management experience in L&D with a couple of well known companies. Nobody on the team knew the new manager and attempts to find out some more about them failed to produce anything meaningful. The team awaited the first meeting with baited breath. On the one hand the team were keen to update the new manager how well they had operated during the 'manager-less' period and that the plan was well on track; on the other hand, given that this manager was an 'unknown' there was a nervousness as to how perhaps this manager may like to operate.

The first meeting came around and the team were keen to introduce the new manager to the team's 'charter' and their way of working. The new manager could not have been less interested in what the charter contained and how the team had worked in the past. They had a way of working that didn't involve teamwork through charters with the focus very much being on personal accountability and individual measurement. Their first move was to break up the project teams and reallocated lead roles for each particular project. No joint measurement. Each individual project lead could call on other's to help but the outputs of the project would be linked to one individual team member. In addition, the new manager would allocated the leads after a 1:1 interview. These did not go well and overall team member strengths and passions were not considered and now did not 'fit' with the various projects, resulting in people leading projects where their strengths were not aligned. Morale and motivation slipped considerably. All meetings were run by the manager with no rotation of leadership. The manager was the sole link to senior management and each team member had to report project progress weekly and to a very defined detailed template. The manager kept copious notes and each person had a very detailed action plan with tight timescales. Micro-management at its very worst. In addition each project lead had to prepare a presentation on their project progress so that the new manager could present this at the senior management team meeting. A ridiculous amount of time was spend on simply editing these presentations as the new manager was never happy with the original presentations put forward. The team members became the new manager's personal secretaries - all four of them! Some of the team challenged back but all to avail as the new managers listening skills were at a minimum and it was very much 'their way of the highway'! It became very evident that this new manager, for all his supposed experience and expertise, was very one dimensional as regards his management approach. A self-managed team on the way to success was now a managed team, frustrated, angry and demotivated. The sad thing was the senior leader who had seen how well the team had been doing without a manager, was now continuing to support a manager presiding over a team who was angry and demotivated. By all account, no action was being taken to support this new manager to get their team back on track.

The team did discuss amongst themselves about feeding back how they were feeling and rather than simply going to senior leadership, the team proposed that the team as a whole get together and review their progress, with a focus on how the team was working together as opposed to the usual 'presentation of results'. It was proposed that an external team coach was brought in to facilitate, and to the surprise of the team, the new manager agreed, although the coach proposed by the team was rejected by the manager as they knew a coach who could do the job. The team agreed to this as the meeting was the important thing and a date was set. On the morning of the meeting, around 2 hours before the meeting was due to commence all the team members got a text to say that the meeting was cancelled due to 'unforeseen circumstances'. Despite calls, emails and texts, no further explanation was forthcoming.

This was the 'final straw' for a couple of the team and a few weeks afterwards resignations came and the team was now down to the 'bare bones'. Still no action was taken by senior leadership despite two in depth 'exit' interviews of the team members who were leaving to go to other companies. These team members gave very mature and professional reasons for their leaving but still this did not produce any action. The team is no longer in existence due to a company restructure and a downsizing. Fortunately the four team members secured good jobs and the manager is also exploring 'pastures new'.

This example shows that a mature and professional team, in the right environment, can work closely together in a self-managed fashion and deliver results. It also show the negative and destructive impact of a manager who lacks the skill, knowledge and empathy to successfully lead a high performance team. Not all teams can operate without a manager, but it may well be that organisations look more closely at those teams who could operate 'manager-less'. Many teams will require a manager to lead them, but it is imperative that these managers are well trained in both individual and team leadership skills and knowledge. In fact as a starting point, it is imperative that organisations have a solid, robust and challenging recruitment process in place so that the right people are recruited in the first place!

If you would like to know more about our 'Resilient Partners' team development programme then simply direct message me through LinkedIn or via email at . Alternatively call me on ++ 44 (0) 776 416 8989

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