How to Become A Self-Managing Team

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree January 08, 2022

Organizations worldwide are steadily realizing the need for a serious upgrade in the way they work—and interest in self-management is skyrocketing as a result. In this post, I'll share some of the wisdom we picked up during our visits to some of the world's leading self-managing organizations and provide tips on how to implement self-management effectively.

Last upgrade of phone, laptop, and way of working

Step 1. Clarify the structure

Many people assume that a self-managing team means no structure. I used to think so too when we started Corporate Rebels. However, I've learned that that's actually not true. Or, to be more precise, that's not how the most successful self-managing companies look at self-management.

Clearly, there's a lack of hierarchical and top-down structures in these companies. However, there's not a lack of structure in general. In fact, I (nowadays) strongly believe that many self-managed teams and companies have much more structure and clarity in their way of working than traditional organizations. This structure helps them operate efficiently without traditional hierarchical roles.

Step 2. Create a handbook

Many highly progressive teams and organizations document their way of working through a handbook that spells out crucial elements of how work gets done there. The handbook helps to create clarity within the team and is an excellent way to onboard new staff members.

The company handbook generally includes topics such as:

  • Roles & responsibilities
  • Decision-making
  • Meeting structures
  • Conflict resolution
  • Feedback
  • Working rhythm

Let's look at how self-managing firms approach each of these.

Step 2.1. Redistribute roles and responsibilities

As the name obviously implies, a self-managing team is a team that manages itself. This means that there isn't a manager who takes care of the typical managerial tasks such as coordination, decision-making, strategy setting, assigning tasks, reviewing performance, etc.

However, negating the standard "manager role" doesn't mean these activities are no longer performed. Rather than one single individual picking up these activities, they're instead distributed among the various team members.

Self-managing teams prefer to work with roles instead of job descriptions. Work is distributed in roles, and people pick up the ones that fit their talents and interests.

If you're a traditional team that wants to become self-managed, here's a powerful way to start working with these roles:

  1. Create an activity list: Forget about typical job descriptions. Get the team together and make a list of all the tasks the team needs to execute to be successful (and don't forget the managerial tasks!).
  2. Cluster activities into roles: The second step is clustering. As a team, highlight activities that are either similar or relate to each other. For example: posting on social media, sending out newsletters, and posting new blog posts are all related. Clustering similar tasks suggests roles in a clear way. For instance, the group of activities mentioned above could become the “publishing role”.
  3. Choose your role: Once you've created all the required roles for your team, let team members select the roles that appeal to them most. This is important: don’t consult job descriptions. And don’t let anyone appoint people to roles. Ensure choices are based on intrinsic motivation.
  4. Rotate unpopular roles: This part is inevitable. What do you do with roles nobody wants to pick up? Well, here's one idea: stop performing them altogether. Seriously. Throw them in the trash. However, if they really are crucial, you can rotate them among team members, outsource them, or hire someone who actually loves doing that role.

For more in-depth instructions on how to start working with roles, check out this course.

Step 2.2. Distribute decision-making

One particularly important feature of the traditional organization is centralization. In many cases, employees have to go up the hierarchy when important decisions need to be made. This blatantly suggests that decision-making competence corresponds with the position in the hierarchy.

Self-managing companies believe this is absolute nonsense. Autocratic decision-making belongs in the past.

Self-managed teams replace autocracy by implementing alternative decision-making processes. In most cases, these self-managing firms opt for consensus, consent, or democratic decision-making.

  • Consensus decision-making is about developing a decision in the best interest of the whole—a compromise that everyone agrees to.
  • Decision-by-consent aims to quickly make a decision that is, in simple terms, good enough for now. If no one has a reasoned objection, the decision will be implemented.
  • Democratic decision-making is well known. A group votes on various options. A majority vote decides the action. In short: the majority rules.

Each has its pros and cons (more on that in this article). Each self-managing team has to decide for itself which process is preferred.

Or you can do what many pioneers do: mix them up. This is what we've often seen within highly successful self-managing teams. It could, for example, look like this:

  • Nearly all decisions: consent. Proceed ahead if no one has reasoned objections. If it doesn't work out, adapt as you go. In many cases, it's better to ask forgiveness rather than wait for permission.
  • Unique, high-impact decisions: consensus. When decisions impact everyone to a high degree, strive for consensus. Some examples include where to rent office space, or perhaps decisions on huge investments that will influence everyone's profit share.

For more on distributed decision-making, check out this course.

Step 2.3. Run better meetings

Another thing to adjust when becoming a self-managing team is how you run meetings. Ditch those frustrating meetings dominated by power-hungry managers and replace them with engaging, fun, and highly participatory ones.

For example, you could start using sociocratic meeting structures, which roughly look like this:

  • Check-in: Let everyone share how they feel when they enter the meeting.
  • Consent to agenda: Go through the agenda, add items if needed, and consent to the final agenda.
  • Discuss topics: Go through the various agenda items. Let each item owner clarify if they want to (1) decide, (2) get advice, or (3) inform.
  • Check-out: Let attendees share how they feel and how they can improve.

Also, it's best to appoint a facilitator and note-taker to ensure a smooth meeting process. You'll learn that this structure allows for much more action and even some fun. Plus, they'll be so efficient that there's no need to cram your calendar with endless meetings.

Learn more from pioneering companies such as Viisi and Buurtzorg and how they approach meetings in our course "Run Better Meetings".

Step 2.4. Conflict resolution

Another element you'll definitely want to create is a conflict-resolution process. When you're in a self-managing team, you don't have the childish option to ask your boss if they can interfere in your team's conflicts; it's up to the team members to fix it themselves.

Self-managing teams must create a clear process for this. Check out the accountability process at self-managing tomato processing company Morning Star for a solid example.

If you ever have a conflict with someone at work (and you likely will at some point), here's the process to solve it:

  1. Have a direct conversation with the person: Anyone who notices performance or integrity issues with another colleague is required to directly discuss the issue with that colleague. No gossiping.
  2. Third-party mediator: If two colleagues don't resolve the issue, they can bring in a mediator. The mediator needs to be someone trusted by both colleagues.
  3. Panel of colleagues: If any difference of opinion is still not resolved, then becomes necessary to convene a panel of colleagues to hear both sides and stay in the conversation until a resolution is reached.
  4. Designated arbitrator: If the discussion becomes deadlocked, then a designated arbitrator participates in the debate and renders a final decision. At some point, all disputes must come to an end.

For more details (and a variation) on the process, check out our conflict resolution course.

Step 2.5. Give better feedback

In traditional organizations, feedback generally takes the form of a miserable annual performance appraisal. The manager has all the power, as they are the one who decides who is over-performing and who is under-performing.

There's no place for such a toxic power balance in self-managing teams. As a result, self-managed teams need to learn how to give and receive high-quality feedback. It can be challenging, but it's vital to boost engagement and performance—even more so in self-management.

So, how do you properly do this?

You can start by letting people regularly (once per month or quarter) share what they feel their colleagues should stop, start, or continue doing to improve the way they work. It’s simple. It’s actionable. And it includes something often overlooked: praise for stuff they do well.

While it may feel uncomfortable to give direct feedback at first, you'll learn over time that practice leads to (some sort of) perfection.

More feedback tips and tools can be found here.

Step 2.6. Establish a fixed working rhythm

Another critical thing to make self-management work is the introduction of a fixed working rhythm. It helps immensely to have a clearly defined cadence to guide the team's work.

Think about things in nature like seasons, tides, sunrises, and sunsets—all of this helps create a sense of order and structure in our lives, even if mostly subconsciously. Businesses can benefit heavily from a fixed operating rhythm. You'll want to include aspects like goal-setting, feedback sessions, progress reviews, and your team's most important meetings.

For example, the rhythm in a self-managing team might look like this:

  • Weekly: Operational meetings to discuss progress, overcome obstacles, and make commitments
  • Monthly: Sessions to discuss any less operational topics and to review progress on the strategic goals
  • Quarterly: Feedback sessions to help team members develop and improve
  • Yearly: Annual meetings to brainstorm, discuss, and agree on next year's strategy

Keep in mind that the working rhythm might look slightly different at each time. The most important thing is simply to have a rhythm of any sort. It keeps chaos at bay and helps the team focus.

This course can help you establish a working rhythm that would work the best in your team.

Many people assume that self-management equals 'no structure'. But that's not how the most successful self-managing companies look at self-management.
Click to tweet

Step 3. Get started

Whether your team is transitioning to self-management or simply looking to enhance its operations, adopting these practices can significantly boost engagement, productivity, and satisfaction.

We recommend you start experimenting and give these ideas a try to discover what works best for your team.

And, if you need more inspiration, you can join the Corporate Rebels Academy to learn about these and other practices in thorough detail.

Let the revolution unfold!

Questions + Answers

Below, you'll find answers to common questions about transforming your team and transitioning to self-management.

What are the examples of self-managing teams and companies?

Companies like Zappos, Buurtzorg, Viisi, and P4Q are prime examples of self-managing teams. They’ve successfully implemented self-management and thrived.

In this blog post, we share more examples of real-world companies, large and small, that are very successful without employing managers.

Open Close
What are the benefits of implementing a self-managing team structure?

Self-managing teams can lead to higher employee engagement, increased innovation, faster decision-making, and improved job satisfaction. They empower individuals and create a more flexible organization.

Read this post to discover how self-management boosted the performance of British aerospace manufacturer Matt Black Systems. And in this blog post, we share the impressive results of a radical transformation at our first acquired company Indaero.

Open Close
How long does it typically take to transition to a self-managing team?

The transition can vary widely but usually takes several months to a few years. It depends on the existing culture, the size of the organization, and the commitment to change.

Besides, the transition to self-management is not an endpoint. It's a never-ending path, an ongoing journey. There's always room for improvement and better ways to organize and further unleash the potential of employees.

Open Close
What challenges do teams commonly face during the transition to self-management?

Transitioning to self-management is not always a smooth journey. Some common challenges include resistance to change, lack of clarity in roles, difficulties in decision-making processes, and maintaining accountability without traditional hierarchies. Read more about these and other obstacles and how to overcome them in this article.

Open Close
What are the key factors that influence the success of self-managing teams?

Key factors that influence the success of self-managed teams include individual and team autonomy, leadership, roles, peer control, company culture, organizational goals, rewards, and others. We described the 16 key factors based on research in this blog post.

Open Close
How do self-managing teams maintain accountability without traditional managers?

Self-managing teams maintain accountability through clear role definitions, regular check-ins, and radicaltransparency. Trust, shared responsibility, and mutual respect are key components. Peer reviews and team-based evaluations also play a big role.

Open Close
What tools or technologies are beneficial for supporting self-managing teams?

Project management tools (e.g., Basecamp, Trello, Asana), communication platforms (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams), and collaboration tools (e.g., Google Workspace) are essential for effective self-management.

Open Close
What role does leadership play in a self-managing team?

When organizations embrace self-management, traditional management goes overboard. However, it doesn’t mean self-managed teams are leaderless. Leadership there is just much more dynamic than in the traditional hierarchical structures.

In self-managing teams, leadership is often distributed. Leaders act as facilitators or coaches, supporting the team’s goals and fostering a collaborative environment rather than directing daily tasks. In many non-hierarchical organizations, leadership moves around. A leader is appointed for a project, for example, or for a certain time.

Check out this article to learn more about the role of a leader in self-managing organizations.

Open Close
How do self-managing teams set and track goals?

Goals are set collaboratively, ensuring everyone is aligned and committed. Tracking is usually done through team meetings, progress check-ins, and using project management tools to keep everyone accountable and on track.

In our Handbook series, we shared how we set and track goals and celebrate successes.

Open Close
What kind of training is necessary for team members to succeed in a self-managing team?

To succeed in a self-managing team, employees require training in communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making.

Training is most effective when it's offered before the implementation of self-management and continued after, rather than being a one-time event.

In our Academy, we offer on-demand courses on how to improve your feedback approach, run better meetings, handle conflicts, distribute work into autonomous roles, refine operating rhythm, and boost psychological safety, among many others.

Open Close
Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
Read more
Jun 23, 2024
Badass CEOs Leading Radical Change
Kimberley de Haas Written by Kimberley de Haas
Changing the world of work as we know it sounds idealistic. Too good to be true, really. And yet, there’s a movement arising, doing just…
Read more about Badass CEOs Leading Radical Change
Jun 16, 2024
Why You Should Only Recruit Spontaneously Combustible People
Joost Minnaar Written by Joost Minnaar
The late Kazuo Inamori, the charismatic founder of two major Japanese companies, Kyocera and KDDI, won worldwide fame for his unorthodox…
Read more about Why You Should Only Recruit Spontaneously Combustible People
Jun 02, 2024
Self-Management Failed, Now What?
Marc-Peter Pijper Written by Marc-Peter Pijper
Self-management models are often seen as solutions to rigid, traditional corporate structures, promising greater innovation and employee…
Read more about Self-Management Failed, Now What?
May 05, 2024
Thriving in Autonomy: Why Self-Management Doesn't Lead to Burnout
Joost Minnaar Written by Joost Minnaar
One question frequently arises when discussing self-managing organizations: Isn't it overly taxing? The concern is understandable. With the…
Read more about Thriving in Autonomy: Why Self-Management Doesn't Lead to Burnout
Apr 14, 2024
Recording: How We Buy Companies And Transform Them Into A Force For Good
Pim de Morree Written by Pim de Morree
Buying companies and transforming them into a force for good. That's what we do with our company Krisos. Last week, we organized a webinar…
Read more about Recording: How We Buy Companies And Transform Them Into A Force For Good
Mar 31, 2024
Creating a Culture of Ownership: Breaking Free from Hierarchy
Diederick Janse Written by Diederick Janse
The buzzword 'ownership' has been circulating in education and business circles for the past decade. Apparently, we want more of it, but…
Read more about Creating a Culture of Ownership: Breaking Free from Hierarchy
Read all articles

Download: Free Guide

Unlock our in-depth guide on trends, tools, and best practices from over 150 pioneering organizations.

Subscribe below and receive it directly in your inbox.

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.