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Self-managed teams: Tips for balancing autonomy with teamwork

Self-managed teams: Tips for balancing autonomy with teamwork

Judy Tsuei
January 13, 2022
Updated on:

Self-managed teams: Tips for balancing autonomy with teamwork
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Here at Clockwise, we love to keep tabs on the ways that teams and companies, all around the world, are revolutionizing work as we know it. Self-management is not a new concept. Some sources say it has been around since as early as the 1950’s! But today, more and more companies are leaning into the momentum created by the massive shifts in our work environments (hello, virtual work!) and seeking out even more opportunities for reinvention.

This blog post will open your eyes to the world of self-managing teams: What they are, why autonomy matters (and nope, it isn’t the same as empowerment), and what every successful self-managed team needs.

What are self-managed teams?

A self-managed team, also called a self-managing team, is a group of employees within an organization who share the responsibility of planning and executing their work, without the supervision of a manager. Under this model, team members take ownership of their workflow, processes, schedules, roles, and more. Team members make commitments to each other, and those commitments, rather than hierarchy, drive the work.

Even without hierarchy, leadership and accountability still exist in self-managed teams. It seems ironic at first, but this TINYpulse blog post by Rosie Powers explains it in clear terms: “In self-managed teams, a given group of employees are collectively responsible for the projects they work on, and specific employees — who are not necessarily managers — take leadership over tasks and initiatives based on their expertise, rather than hierarchy or title.”

It’s common for the term ‘self-managing team’ to be used interchangeably with ‘self-directed’ or ‘self-governing’ team. “Self-directed teams usually consist of around 25 members at most, but the prime self-directed teams are said to have somewhere between five and nine members,” Brian Tait, Professional Certified Coach, wrote in Forbes.

Self-management varies from company to company. For instance, Zappos scaled self-managed teams across their entire organization, opting for the Holacracy model in 2014. While Holacracy gives a very specific foundation on which to implement self-management, Zappos also weaved in their own organizational culture after some time. 

Other types of work teams include operational/functional teams, cross-functional teams, and virtual teams.

What are the benefits of self-managed teams?

Transitioning into self-management is not an overnight process. But with some patience, refinement, and lots of communication, you’ll find that self-management has many advantages.

1. Employees may feel more engaged and valued.

The lack of conventional management in self-managing teams doesn’t necessarily turn them into free-for-alls. Self-managed teams often achieve the structure other management styles offer through hierarchy through roles instead. 

“Rather than roles being dependent on power, the self-management team structure focuses on what a role has decision-making rights over,” Rosie Powers wrote for TINYpulse. “This not only helps create a feeling of ownership over the role, but also makes the employee feel valued from day one.” Self-management isn’t so much about empowerment, but about realizing that employees already have the inherent power to drive their own work.

2. Self-management can enhance productivity.

Self-management eliminates some of the red tape we usually encounter with conventional management styles. This can speed things up considerably. The potential for increased productivity is what drew Zappos’s leadership to consider a type of self-managing organizational structure — called Holacracy — in 2013. 

As Jenny Thai wrote for Wavelength (Asana’s publication for teams), “Instead of a traditional management hierarchy authorizing every decision, teams closest to the work make the call, and are able to move much faster to tackle new opportunities and challenges.” (To get the most out of Asana + Clockwise, try our integration!)

3. Self-management can spark innovation.

As each member steps into their role with a greater sense of ownership and engagement, you naturally bring in more perspectives, voices, and ideas. Because self-management facilitates greater agility, it’s much easier to implement creative new ideas, instead of stifling them beneath approval requests. This is why self-management can beget more creative problem solving, diversity in perspectives, and greater responsiveness.

4. Employees may find more opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Because self-managed teams often rotate their roles — in the Buurzorg method, each member has a primary static role, but there are six other roles that rotate within the team — team members get the chance to grow their skillsets. “Self-managed teams are a great way to expand employees’ experience and allow them to try out and master new capabilities through rotating roles and learning from other teammates,'' wrote Shonna Waters, PhD, for BetterUp.

5. Self-management can reduce your number of burned-out managers. 

Fewer traditional managers means cost savings, since you’re not hiring for that position. This is especially helpful since, as it turns out, fewer people want to become managers these days. A 2019 Boston Consulting Group study found that “81% of managers say the job is harder in recent years,” and only “9% of managed employees aspire to become a manager in the next 5-10 years.” 

Managers who participated in the study said that they felt more overworked, more stressed, and less supported. It’s clear that management under this traditional model is “no longer sustainable,” as the study put it. It’s worth considering whether self-management may come out of necessity, and whether it would behoove companies to begin implementing self-management and autonomy into their structures sooner than later.

Are there any disadvantages of self-management?

There are at least two main potential drawbacks to self-management: 

1. Inequity

2. Inadequate support during transition to self-management

How does inequity, or a lack of fairness, figure into self-management? Waters pointed out a 2019 study entitled “Peer Bargaining and Productivity in Teams,” which studied 932 workers at 32 Chinese beauty salons. The researchers found that when the workers were left to self-manage and bargain with each other for commissions, women received 24% less pay than men, even though the women were more productive. Though that pay gap still exists in hierarchical organizations, as previous studies have pointed out, it’s to a lesser degree. “This inequality can lead to stifled innovation when members fear sharing ideas and a team succumbs to groupthink,” Waters wrote.

Anatomy of a self-managed team

What does a self-managed team look like in practice? Even though there are no hard rules for self-management, most experts recommend these components:

  • Commitments
  • Leadership
  • Clear vision and goals

Commitments are the driving force behind self-managing teams. Commitments made between team members propel the work forward, as opposed to assignments being handed down from management. Members recognize their individual responsibility, as well as their collective responsibility as a unit. And that sense of accountability becomes evident in the commitments they make.

It might seem counterintuitive at first for leadership to exist in self-managing teams, but a team leader (or leaders) can be instrumental. The role of a team leader isn’t that of a conventional manager. Rather than calling all the shots, they’re there in service to the entire team. They may provide mentoring, facilitate team building, and remind the team to stay aligned on their common goal. As such, it’s normal for a team leader to be well-equipped with management skills, and to be familiar with project management, but ultimately, the decision-making doesn’t rest with them.

In order to build and participate in a successful self-managed team, there must also be clarity around your team’s vision and goals. Of course, this is true for any type of work group. But for teams who don’t have the guardrails of traditional management, clear direction becomes even more vital for their success.

What’s the difference between self-managed teams and cross-functional teams?

Self-managed and cross-functional teams are two different types of teams, although you’ll find that there’s some overlap. By definition, a cross-functional team includes members from different departments (e.g. finance, marketing, engineering, and human resources). In self-managed teams, on the other hand, you don’t need members from multiple specialties. 

Members can be cross-functional, but it isn’t a prerequisite for being a self-managed team.

Another key difference between these two types of teams is leadership. In cross-functional teams, a manager (such as a project manager) might be involved in the decision-making process. Meanwhile, self-managed teams make decisions internally.

That doesn’t mean that self-managed teams don’t have a leader-type figure. For example, they might have an external leader who acts as a liaison between the team and the greater organization and/or stakeholders. However, most of the decision-making resides with the team itself. And as we quoted above from the TINYpulse article about self-managed teams, it’s common for every member of the team to take leadership on a particular task or aspect of their work. 

Moving forward

Self-management is a type of team structure that distributes decision-making power among team members, rather than one person (like a manager) having all of the authority. Self-management can also be applied on a grander scale, as an organizational structure. The advantages of self-management, when implemented effectively, may include increased productivity, greater employee engagement, and overall higher team performance.

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at

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