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The Science Of Successful Self-Management: 16 Crucial Factors

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar March 18, 2018

In both popular and academic management literature, self-managing teams are identified as one of the key innovations in progressive organizations. But successful self-management is not an easy task. It requires both a good grasp of the key elements and an understanding of the factors that influence them.

Recently we wrote that self-management has long been grounded in research. So, what can we learn from this immense body of academic literature for use in our day-to-day practices?

Fortunately, there is an excellent review of this literature by scholars Nina Cristina Magpili and Pilar Pazos (Self-Managing Team Performance: A Systematic Review of Multilevel Input Factors). It provides us with many of the answers.

The key factors (according to research)

These scholars reviewed almost 40 years of literature on the topic and presented an extensive overview of the essential factors that, according to research, influence the success of self-managing teams.

The factors they describe can be a guide for organizations wanting to implement self-managing practices. This evidence-based analysis describes the crucial factors.

What are these key factors? We lay them out below on the three key organizational levels – (1) the individual, (2) the team, and (3) the organization.

Key factors at the individual level (according to research)

1. Autonomy

Employees need to establish a balance between individual and team autonomy. On the one hand, individual autonomy can promote motivation and successful self-management; on the other, it can frustrate collective success.

Too much individual autonomy is a liability when employees make significant plans or decisions without consulting the rest of the team.

2. Roles

Roles within self-managing teams evolve and change as the work of the team changes. Sometimes new roles need to be created and, at others, removed. Roles are no longer tied to job descriptions. Employees must decide for themselves what roles are needed to accomplish their work.

Successful self-managing teams are capable of rotating jobs when they have overlapping skill sets.

3. Leadership

In successful self-managing teams, leaders are chosen on their proven skills. They are able to gain the commitment of others and to delegate. Other important behaviors are mentoring and coaching of peers.

Effective leaders promote team cohesion by encouraging opinion-sharing, clarifying misconceptions, and addressing concerns.

4. Skills

Some studies suggest that the success of self-managing teams is dependent on having a mix of skills in the team. This improves flexibility and enhances collaboration. Both self-management and teamwork skills are important.

Crucial teamwork skills include the ability to lead, to communicate, and to conduct meetings effectively. Training is usually essential for successful skill development.

5. Experience

Once teams gain experience, they are likely to gain more autonomy. Similarly, employees with more experience tend to become the leaders, mentors and coaches in the team.

Long work experience can also be a negative: it is shown that experienced employees are more tempted to revert to old practices. That can hurt performance.

Key factors at the team level (according to research)

1. External leadership

Teams benefit from external leaders who provide supportive direction but are not involved in their day-to-day tasks. They enrich teams by facilitating constructive processes for conflict, communication, development, and decision-making.

Leader intervention is most productive when requested by the team. It hurts when intervention is experienced as excessive. Negative interventions include too much monitoring of teams, chairing meetings, assigning responsibilities and overriding team decisions. These all limit the sense of autonomy and ownership.

2. Peer control

Peer control influences behavior via social pressure. Peer control is significantly and positively related to team performance.

However, if peer pressure is used in combination with strict norms or standards it can reduce the team’s perception of autonomy.

3. Task characteristics

Findings show that some tasks are better suited for self-managing teams than others. Examples include those that are novel, uncertain, technological, interdependent, complex, and innovative.

Self-managing teams are less suitable for simple or repetitive tasks.

4. Team autonomy

A crucial component is team autonomy. Specific factors may prevent teams from achieving their desired level of autonomy, such as inadequate leadership, rigid organization structures and/or excessive peer control.

Key factors at organizational level (according to research)

1. Corporate culture

Successful implementation of self-managing teams is related to a culture that promotes autonomy, accountability, continuous learning, risk-taking, and change.

Unsurprisingly, retaining a top-down culture negatively influences the success of self-managing practices.

2. Corporate policies

Another unsurprising result is that highly prescriptive corporate policies limit risk-taking, creativity, and flexibility, leading to a decrease in team performance and unsuccessful self-management.

3. Organizational goals

Organization goal clarity is a predictor of a self-managing team’s performance. They can then set their own goals to offer maximum support. Lack of clear goals causes confusion and frustration and ultimately undermines team performance.

4. Organizational structure

Flat organization structures are more likely to promote a self-managing team’s success. Very hierarchical structures are shown to restrict communication, and therefore, collaboration.

5. Training

Training in self-management has a positive effect. Notably, it can improve decision-making and problem-solving. Training is most effective when it is offered before the implementation of self-management and continued after—rather than being a one-time event.

6. Resources

External leaders should allow teams access to all necessary resources, technology, equipment, space, tools, and materials to perform their work well. Access is essential for performance, and leads to better decisions, more innovative ideas, and improved self-management.

7. Rewards

Team-based rewards have a positive effect on a self-managing team’s performance. They enhance the sense of ownership. Individual rewards can undermine this.

Self-managing employees feel rewarded by social rewards. These could be becoming an informal leader, gaining the respect of the team, and being nominated by peers or leaders for good performance.

The 7 key factors for self-management at the organizational level according to research: (1) Culture, (2) Policies, (3) Goals, (4) Structure, (5) Training, (6) Resources, and (7) Rewards.
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Flatter organization structures, reduced formalization, and an empowered, supportive culture provide the ideal context for self-management to thrive. All of this is very much in line with our 8 habits of highly progressive workplaces.

Self-management thrives when all levels of the organization clearly understand their supporting roles. Awareness of the key factors reported in this research will build this clarity. Equally, overlooking these key factors will almost certainly lead to failure and frustration!

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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