Irene van der Spoel, 2018
Self-directed teams are gaining popularity in organisations (Glenn, Snyder, Dahnke & Kuether, 2016), and are often set up because it has been found that it is linked to, amongst other things, increased productivity, job-satisfaction, and organisational commitment (Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Sundstrom, McIntyre, Halfhil, & Richards, 2000). Self-directed teams are also known as self-managing teams, self-regulating teams, or autonomous teams. In this research, these are seen as synonyms, however, self-directed teams will be the used term to avoid confusion. The definition of self-directed teams for this research is groups of individuals with a diversity of skills and knowledge, who have the collective responsibility to plan, manage, and execute tasks independently to reach a common goal (Magpili & Pazos, 2018; De Jong, De Ruyter, & Lemmink, 2004).
To enable this, according to Caramanica, Ferris & Little (2001), all group members determine priorities, solve problems, divide workloads, and cross-train each other. The role of team leader may rotate, to generate shared responsibility. According to research, characteristics of self-directed teams are shared responsibility, autonomous decision-making and problem solving, and self-determined leadership (Orsburn, Moran, Musselwhite, Zenger, & Perrin, 1990). This is confirmed by two other studies, who claim that key in well-functioning self-directed teams are shared responsibility and considerable discretion for the conducted group work (Kirkman & Rosen, 1999; Batt, 2004). The main difference between other team structures and self-directed teams, is that self-directed teams tend to exert substantive influence on work-related decisions (Cotton, Vollrath, Froggatt, Lengnick-Hall, & Jennings, 1988; Levine & Tyson, 1990). The adoption of self-directed teams is often interpreted as a signal that the organisation values and appreciates their employees’ contributions (Allen, et al, 2003), which is frequently perceived by employees as an organisation’s commitment to them (Brown, Geddes, & Heywood, 2007). In the next paragraph, additional advantages and disadvantages of self-directed teams will be discussed.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Self-directed teams gained popularity in the 1950s. The first study on it was an evaluation of British coal-mining teams (Trist & Bamforth, 1951). When returning to specialised teams instead of self-directed teams, the productivity decreased, job satisfaction lowered, and absenteeism increased (Trist, 1981). Later studies found that self-directed teams had lowered violations of health and safety, generated positivity, decreased absenteeism, and increased productivity. This was due to a sense of autonomy concerning work methods, break periods, and work-related issues (Trist, Higgin, Murray, & Pollock, 1963). In addition, a longitudinal study by Cordery, Mueller, and Smith (1991) showed significantly higher scores of intrinsic motivation, work role autonomy, extrinsic satisfaction, and job commitment of employees working in self-directed teams, as opposed to employees working under traditional work structures.
The implementation of self-directed teams is often a result of innovation efforts, as well as ‘flattening’ organisations (Janz, 1999). It can counter the effects of vertical organisations, such as motivational dysfunction (Pearce, 2004; Pink, 2011), because promoting team autonomy helps enrich jobs and empowers team members (Kauffeld, 2006; Kirkman & Rosen, 2001). Apart from that, the increased flexibility in hierarchical structures within an organisation, is a promoting factor for undergoing organisational changes (Nonaka, 2007; Adler, 1993). Lastly, team members of a self-directed team tend to become more autonomous and, it tends to accelerate the members’ ability to respond to changes (Johnson, Hollenbeck, Scott DeRue, Barnes, & Jundt, 2013). An unintended negative effect of self-directed teams can be elevated levels of stress, due to increased responsibilities and peer pressure. This effect may be worsened if performance-based rewards are introduced (Roy, 2003; McCalman, 1998).
Promoting and impeding factorsThe implementation of self-directed teams concerns both promoting and impeding factors. These factors can be put into three categories: Factors concerning the organisation, the team, and the individual team member. First, the factors concerning organisation will be addressed.
In order to establish and develop self-directed teams, it is important to determine whether teams are ready to start this process (Caramanica, Ferris & Little, 2001). Before setting up the teams, the initiator of the self-directed team ought to present a framework as to why self-directed teams will benefit their work, and how this will be established. The latter should contain ground rules. Apart from that, the support from management needs to be addressed, as well as the professionalisation it will require from the team. Thirdly, it is also important to set short-term objectives, in order to book quick, and early successes. Lastly, there ought to be room for suggestions, questions, and input from the team (Caramanica, Ferris & Little, 2001). These factors can both impede and promote the commencement of self-directed teams, depending on how the aforementioned steps are carried out.
Before starting the implementation process of self-directed teams, an organisation must also consider whether the tasks carried out by the teams fit this organisational structure. Certain assignments are more suitable for self-directed team than others. Assignments that feature for instance high uncertainty (Cordery, et al., 2010), high task innovativeness (Patanakul, Chen, & Lynn, 2012), and low task routineness (De Jong, et al., 2004; Rousseau & Aubé, 2010), tend to be more appropriate for self-directed teams. Two other studies confirmed that the complexity of jobs and the uncertainty of assignments facilitates a self-directed team to perform (Powel & Pazos, 2017; Smith & Offodile, 2008).
In alignment with assignments, objectives need to fit the self-directed structures as well. A positive correlation has been found between clear organisational objectives and self-directed team performance (Wageman, 2001). Despite the responsibility to set its own goals, self-directed teams must adhere to the organisation and thus rely on feedback from the organisation to make sure their work is aligned (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). By determining clear objectives beforehand, disappointments can be avoided and self-directed teams can increase in performance (Chen & Kanfer, 2006; Hu & Liden, 2011).
Apart from the type of assignments and clear objectives, the culture of an organisation can influence the performance of self-directed teams greatly (Park, 2012). Promoting factors that can be found in an organisation’s culture are accountability, constant learning, risk taking, and continuous change (Hawkins, 2013; Phakathi, 2002). Organisations where risk-taking and experimenting is seen as a merit, often benefit from self-directed teams most, as opposed to organisations who solely focus on consistent quality (Sethi & Sethi, 2009). Apart from that, a top-down organisation of self-directed teams will often scrutinise the positive effects, and prevent teams from self-organising (Hoda, et al., 2011). Another part of an organisation’s culture that can jeopardise the performance of self-directed teams, are corporate policies. Autonomy and creativity can disappear when limits are too tight, and flexibility is decreased (Cohen & Ledford, 1994; Rolfsen & Langeland, 2012). Research has shown that employees may avoid taking risks in fear of violating organisational norms (Phakathi, 2002; Tata & Prasad, 2004). This is also affected when managers or leaders are used to practising hierarchical organisational structures, and do not allow the self-directed teams to operate autonomously (Roufaiel & Meissner, 1995).
The role of managers and leaders in an organisation with self-directed teams does not disappear. Despite a self-directed team being fully autonomous, it often still requires an external leader or manager, who is not involved with daily tasks, but solely helps to manage team boundaries and provide direction when needed (Morgeson, 2005). The role of the external leader is to support the team and to adapt the approach to this support to the maturity of the team (Ayas, 1996; Powel & Pazos, 2017). Successful external leaders tend to monitor the self-directed team’s progress, and actively encourages the autonomous state of the team (Morgeson & DeRue, 2006). This is done by promoting self-reflection, self-criticism, and self-reinforcement to members (Mcnair, et al., 2011; Short, 1993).
In short, for organisations to successfully implement and support self-directed teams, a clear aim for the implementation must be available. Assignments, objectives, and the culture of an organisation must fit the self-directed teams, and should be made known to the employees who are going to be part of the team. This should be done by the initiators of the teams. Managers and leaders outside of the team must not interfere with daily tasks, but are solely responsible for facilitation and enabling. In the next paragraphs, the impeding and promoting factors for self-directed teams on team level will be addressed.
The most important factor, as it occurs in the definition of self-directed teams is team autonomy. Team autonomy is the ability of the team to complete tasks as a team, without requiring leaders outside the team to intervene or assist. It is a key component in any successful self-directed team (Lee & Xia, 2010; Powell & Pazos, 2017; Rolfsen & Langeland, 2012). Certain factors may influence the desired level of autonomy. These factors can be a lack of skills or experience within the team (Conchúir, et al., 2009), insufficient support from management (McCalman, 1998; Powell & Pazos, 2017), team members who do not want to take on the role of a leader (Pais, 2010), rigid organisational structures (Scribner, et al., 2007), and negative peer pressure (Rolfsen & Langeland, 2012). These factors will be addressed more elaborately later on.
At the start of self-directed teams, the assembly of teams can have an effect on the productivity, efficiency, and effectivity of a team, and thereby its autonomous qualities. Research by Wax, DeChurch and Contractor (2017), has found that deep-level homogeneity may lead to inferior performance, and that teams based on friendship are oftentimes more successful. The latter can be achieved in practice by enabling self-assembly of teams (Wax, DeChurch, & Contractor, 2017). However, according to Fraser, Gunawan, and Goh (2013), the assembly of teams benefits more from a mix of skills than of friendship. Apart from that, the work experience of team members is also an important factor (Magpili & Pazos, 2018). A lack of work experience often leads to decreased team-based autonomy, which threatens the existence of self-directed teams (Pais, 2010; Conchúir, Holmström, Ågerfalk & Fitzgerald, 2009). Consequently, when a team consists of a mix in terms of work experience, the members with the most experience tend to lead the team (Eseryel & Eseryel, 2013). However, this is not always most beneficial, as work experience may also inhibit the ability to change, and thereby be innovative (Hoda, et al., 2013).
Apart from the assembly of a team, communication, training, and teamwork are the most important human factors in increasing level of service, and elevating delivery performance (Roper & Phillips, 2007). The communication ought to be formalised, open, and clear. In terms of teamwork, it is important that the team members’ skills complement each other. Three areas of skills are technical or functional expertise, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and interpersonal skills. These skills should overlap within a team, without overrepresenting one of the three (Roper & Phillips, 2007). The final key factor, training, is critical to enhancing knowledge and skills, but should also focus on human skills of being an effective team player. Training must be viewed as an opportunity for personal, group, and organisational development, which requires departments to commit to lasting, and effective training (Fraser, Gunawan, & Goh, 2013; Andrès, et al., 2015; Levi & Slem, 1995).
Effective training also enables another factor of successful implementation and functioning of self-directed teams, namely job rotation. Job rotation has been linked to increased team responsiveness to an organisation’s needs (Bernstein et al., 2016), elevated trust, and improved negotiation within the team (Cook, Gerrish, & Clarke, 2001). A requirement for job rotation is overlapping skills within the team (Perry, et al,. 2013), as has been mentioned in requirements for team assembly.
Apart from promoting factors, there are also factors threatening a healthy team. Especially when it concerns self-directed teams, unnoticed self-organised dynamics can have a deteriorating effect on the autonomy of a team. Although autonomy and independent decision-making should be promoted, self-organisational patterns can negatively affect an organisation or team when it is based on deeply-held perception of itself (Henning, 2008). These patterns are often a reflection of the system’s collective memory (Cilliers,1998), and its beliefs about its identity (Maturana, & Varela, 1980). When team members only operate within one team, and do not calibrate thoughts and processes, self-organised dynamics may cause suffering from ignorance, decreased corporate growth, and lowered employee satisfaction. This can be forestalled by communication within and outside teams. Apart from that, it is also important that these patterns are noticed, monitored, and mentioned by team members and managers. Awareness of negative self-organisation within teams majorly decreases the chances of affecting the organisation (Connaughton, Shuffler, & Goodwin, 2011).
Aside from self-organisation as an impeding factor, stress may contribute as well. This can be caused by the increased responsibility of self-directed teams, combined with augmented roles, and may lead to performance losses (Magpili & Pazos, 2018). Augmented roles may lead to members losing focus or having trouble prioritising tasks (Bernstein, et al., 2016).
In short, teams must focus on team autonomy, and stray from individual autonomy or self-organisation. For the assembly of teams, work experience, skills, and friendship must be taken into account. Both before and during the process of self-directed teams, communication is very important. The same goes for training. An impeding factor can be elevated stress levels in employees. This must be monitored by all team members of the self-directed team. Apart from requirements for organisations and teams, the individual team member needs to fit the self-directed teams as well. The promoting and impeding factors for individuals will be reviewed below.
Factors impeding the start of self-directed teams in terms of attitudes of individuals, can often be allocated to resistance to change (Liebowitz & Holden, 1995; Strydom, 2002). Reported reasons for this are a preference for structure, lack of experience, fear of decreased job security, aversion to increased workload, and fear of the unknown (Kim & McNair, 2010; Mcnair, et al., 2011; Thursfield, 2015). To reduce this resistance, a clear explanation of what self-directed teams include and how they operate, has shown effective. Another successful strategy is to show dissenting employees an example of operating self-directing teams, so they can see and possibly experience the direct effect (Roufaiel & Meissner, 1995).
Being able to take the lead as a member of a self-directed team is an important factor (Magpili & Pazos, 2018). In this, it is important to realise that communication is key when it comes to leadership (Morgeson, DeRue, & Karam, 2010). To be more precise, it is a critical and defining aspect of leadership (Fairhurst, 2007), and contributes greatly to adaptive performance (Marks, Zaccaro, & Mathieu, 2000). Leadership behaviours within a self-directed team has been postulated a key factor for success in self-directed teams (Magpili & Pazos, 2018). High-performing self-directed teams tend to have individuals that display and exhibit more leadership behaviours than those in low-performing self-directed teams (Carte, Chidambaram, & Becker, 2006). In self-directed teams, the role of a leader is often rotated, to increase a feeling of shared responsibility (Caramanica, Ferris & Little, 2001). Shared leadership has also shown to have a positive effect on the performance of a self-directed team (McIntyre & Foti, 2013; Carte, et al., 2006), through increased awareness of fellow members’ roles and their significance to the team (Fausing, Jeppesen, Jønsson, Lewandowski, & Bligh, 2013).
Team members who take on the rotating role of team leader within the self-directed teams, must have certain skills and attitudes. Firstly, they ought to have expertise concerning the topic at hand (Banai et al., 2000; Eseryel & Eseryel, 2013), and they must be able to monitor performance quality (Pais, 2010). Apart from that, they are required to act as boundary spanners (Rolfsen & Langeland, 2012), a mentor (Hoda, et al., 2013), and a coach (Banai, et al., 2012). Helpful attitudes in successful leadership in self-directed teams, are delegating tasks when needed, and showing commitment to the team (Doorewaard, Geert, & Huys, 2002; Heffron & Rerick, 1997).
Leadership within a team is an important skill to acquire, but self-leadership can be even more important. Self-leadership is the team member’s ability to assign tasks, plan and schedule work, and to take initiative when problems arise (Noe, Hollenbeek, Gerhart, & Wright, 2007; Kirkman & Rosen, 1999). In order to function within, and contribute to, a self-directed team, team members require to possess certain skills. Self-directed team members who complete their own tasks as well as team tasks effectively, were great contributors to the team’s process (Houghton, Neck, & Manz, 2003; Manz & Sims, 1987, 2001; Neck & Manz, 2007). Self-directing is often driven by self-discipline over behaviour, intrinsic motivation (Druskat & Wheeler, 2003), and the ability to cope with frustrations and setbacks without letting it influence the process (Kanfer & Heggestad, 1997). These skills tend to develop inconsistently over time, when partaking in a self-directed team (Mathieu, Gilson, & Ruddy, 2006; Wageman, 2001).
In this process, it can be helpful to delineate external behaviour-focused rewards, and instead let the team members discover their internal drives and rewards. This can be done by introducing natural reward strategies (Neck & Houghton, 2006), to motivate themselves by noticing or embedding intrinsic rewards into their work. For instance, through determining the long-term effect of an action, or the short-term response of someone who is helped, even in mundane tasks (Gagné & Deci, 2005). Apart from that, employees can use positive self-talk, visual imagery of performance execution, and rational counterarguments for dysfunctional beliefs to increase self-regulation and self-efficacy (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998). The combination of these three strategies, as displayed in Figure 1, lead to self-leadership; an important skill as a team member of a self-directed team (Millikin, Horn, & Manz, 2010).
Figure 3: Strategies Leading to Self-leadership (Millikin, Horn & Manz, 2010).
However, there is a major difference between self-leadership and individual autonomy. Individual autonomy can actually impede successful implementation of self-directed teams. The combination of low self-autonomy and high team-autonomy showed to be most successful and sustainable in self-directed teams (Langred, 2004; 2005). This problem becomes most apparent when team members make decisions without consulting the rest of the team (Moe, Dingsøyr, & Dybå, 2010). Apart from that, it may also have a negative effect on self-directed teams, because stressing individual autonomy entices the focus on individual tasks, rather than group assignments, which can hinder skill acquisition, cross-training and job rotation (Thursfield, 2015; Barney, Moe, Dybå, Aurum & Winata, 2009).
Self-leadership is an important skill, just as assignment-related skills and knowledge. Individuals partaking in a self-directed team, must have a variety of skills that can contribute to the team’s tasks (Druskat & Pescosolido, 2002), because if they lack required skills, they tend to harbour low expectations (Nicholls, et al., 1999) and focus on defending their job and reputation, rather than improving themselves (Hoda, et al., 2013). Apart from that, absence of required skills can offset a decrease in exercising autonomy, which is a key characteristic of self-directed teams (Mcnair, et al., 2011). Individuals with multiple skills increase the flexibility of a team and improve collaborative processes (Powell & Pazos, 2017; Wageman, 1997), which reap the most benefits when some skills shared by multiple team members (Perry, et al, 2013). To achieve this, time and resources to develop necessary skills must be available (Banai, et al., 2000; Druskat & Pescosolido, 2002).
As in any team, aside from aforementioned assignment-related skills, teamwork skills are incredibly important in self-directed teams as well (Powell & Pazos, 2017; Weis,1992). Even when all other factors are in place, the absence of teamwork skills can put a team in malfunction (Fazzari & Mosca, 2009). Sub-skills concerned with teamwork that are important for self-directed teams, are the ability to lead, communicate, and conduct meetings effectively (Banai, et al., 2000; Hoda, et al. 2013).
In short, a team member of a self-directed team must possess certain knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This starts with being open to change. Apart from that, shared, as well as rotating leadership, tends to have a positive effect on team performance, as long as the leader possesses the right skills. Apart from that, self-leadership determines the success of self-directed teams as well. This is one of the skills a team member must possess, aside from skills concerning the tasks the team must perform, and teamwork skills in general.
Conclusion and Implications
In conclusion, self-directed teams are teams with a diversity of skills and knowledge, who are collectively responsible and accountable for planning, managing, and executing tasks to reach a common goal. The main advantages of self-directed teams are increased job satisfaction, elevated motivation, and stronger resilience to changes. These effects can be countered if employees experience peer pressure or responsibility-induced stress.
Promoting and impeding factors for self-directed teams can be categorised on a(n) organisation, team, and individual level. On the level of the organisation, the structure and culture is important. Before the start of the self-directed teams, support from management must be made apparent, and both the tasks and goals of the self-directed teams must be clear beforehand. The tasks should also be low task routine, and high task innovativeness, in order for a self-directed team to flourish. Management can support the self-directed teams by staying clear of rigid frameworks and short-term deadlines. Apart from that, a requirement of self-directed teams is that the culture of an organisation sees experimenting and risk-taking as a merit. This can be supported by management through encouraging self-reflection, self-reinforcement, and self-criticism.
For a team, it is important to determine beforehand if the team is ready for self-directed teams. If this is the case, short-term objectives must be formulated, and the initiator should present a framework and elaborate on the benefits of self-directed teams. After this, the teams must receive lasting and effective training on being team players within a self-directed team. During this process, there has to be room for input, suggestions, and questions from team members. This is also important during the assembly of teams, where mix of skills, mix of work experience, and friendship need to be taken into consideration. In the establishment of self-directed teams, it is important to address and include job rotation, as well as team autonomy. When the teams are effective, communication within, as well as outside the team must be valued.
On an individual level, the employee must know beforehand what self-directed teams are and how they operate. Secondly, employees must possess or develop team player, leadership, and self-leadership skills. The professionalisation it requires from the individual, should be made known beforehand. Apart from that, the employee must be made aware of the fact that team autonomy is more important than individual autonomy.
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