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Self-managed teams: Are they right for your SMB

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Managing teams can be complex and time consuming and doesn’t always work in today’s remote and hybrid working conditions. Rather than relying on a manager to oversee teams from the outside, many businesses are moving towards the model of self-managed teams.

While there are many benefits to implementing these types of self-managing teams, they’re not suitable for all organisations. They require strong communication, time management and conflict resolution skills, and can contribute to unequal contributions that could lead to resentment. However, when all members work in harmony, a self-managed team is engaged, efficient and focused on shared goals.

In this guide, we’re going to explain what self-managed teams are, how they work, and how to decide whether they’re a good fit for your organisation.

What is a self-managed team?

what is a self managed team

A self-managed team is one that operates without the direction of an authority figure such as a manager or team leader. Each individual has full control over their actions and responsibilities, relying on an autonomous approach to achieve outcomes. Unlike standard operational teams, self-managing teams don’t have a hierarchical structure, instead working collaboratively as peers.

6 characteristics of a self-managed team

Self-managed teams possess specific characteristics that separate them from traditional team dynamics. These characteristics, such as being able to work autonomously and defining the overall purpose, determine the functionality and effectiveness of the team, and support its overall success

1. Shared leadership

There are no single leaders within a self-managed team, and each decision is made collaboratively. This approach ensures that all team members contribute equally to the planning process.

2. Strong communication

Open and transparent communication is an important characteristic for self-managing teams. Regular updates and feedback loops help to maintain clarity within the team and ensure that everyone is kept informed.

3. Mutual trust and accountability

Members of a self-managed team trust in their coworkers’ skills and hold each other accountable for achieving the promised results. This mutual trust fosters a supportive and responsible working environment geared towards success.

4. Self-direction and autonomy

Individuals in a self-managed team must be able to take initiative and manage their own workloads. They have the freedom to plan and execute their tasks without constant oversight, which requires discipline and motivation.

5. Shared goals and vision

As decisions are made collaboratively, self-managing teams have a clear understanding of their objectives and overall purpose. Each team member is therefore better aligned with these goals, driving the collective effort towards achieving them.

6. Effective problem-solving skills

Self-managed teams can identify and resolve issues collaboratively, working together to solve problems on an individual and organisational level. Their combined expertise and diverse perspectives enable them to tackle challenges efficiently and creatively.

How do self-managed teams work?

In a self-managed team, individuals take full ownership of their tasks and deadlines. Employees operate autonomously, while also supporting and contributing to the rest of the team to ensure successful outcomes. As the name suggests, the team members manage themselves as a group of peers, rather than following the guidance of a leader. This means that they must all participate in workload planning, goal setting, task allocation, communication and conflict resolution.

These types of teams tend to take an ad-hoc approach to meetings, requiring fewer formal catch-ups as each team member is more actively involved in the overall planning and decision-making process. While there tends not to be any formal hierarchy, certain tasks may require a facilitator, which may change from one meeting to the next, and requires certain leadership skills

Self-managed teams are typically smaller in size than manager-led teams and tend to have well-defined roles that drive the overall direction of the team. This makes it easier to keep an eye on individual progress and ensure that they stay on track to meet deadlines and achieve goals. Due to the flexible nature of their structure, they often don’t follow standard annual leave policies, instead using a more dynamic approach.

7 benefits of self-managed teams

Self-managing teams provide a variety of benefits for both employees and employers, which means that they can have a wide positive impact throughout the organisation.

1. Increased autonomy

The more employees are encouraged to manage themselves, the better able they are to work autonomously. This helps them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which enables them to handle a wider range of circumstances and responsibilities.

This is particularly important for organisations with flexible or hybrid working arrangements, as remote employees can’t be monitored and managed in the same ways as those who are physically present. Asking teams to guide themselves helps them to develop stronger time management skills and fosters a proactive approach.

2. Boosted motivation

Creating close-knit relationships within teams can help to motivate employees, as it helps them to feel more engaged with their coworkers on a personal level. This creates a sense of belonging, encourages peer-to-peer support, and prevents individuals from feeling isolated.

The collaborative approach of self-managed teams helps members to feel valued and invested in the overall success of the group. In contrast, those in traditionally managed teams may feel more like a cog in a machine than an integral part of the process.

3. Enhanced ownership

Instead of simply following orders that are relayed to them by a manager, members of self-managing teams have more of a say in what is done, when, and how. Being involved in the decision-making process allows them to feel more invested in their role, and that they are contributing something meaningful.

This increased sense of ownership not only boosts engagement and job satisfaction but allows individuals to carve out a niche or specialism that suits their goals and skill sets. Giving employees more say over their own workloads can open up exciting new opportunities and developmental pathways that would otherwise not be available.

4. Improved efficiency

Giving individuals the authority to delegate tasks, plan their workloads and make decisions allows them to use their time more efficiently. Rather than asking questions and waiting for answers, they can spend more time carrying out work and solving problems.

Self-managed teams also enable members to choose tasks that they are able to complete quickly and to a high standard. This helps to improve overall productivity and ensures the consistent delivery of high-quality work, which ultimately benefits the entire organisation.

5. Higher employee engagement

Employee engagement is an important measure of job satisfaction, and an essential part of creating an effective workforce. The increased autonomy and ownership of a self-managing team helps to boost employee engagement by helping individuals to feel more in control of their working day.

In turn, this allows them to connect more with the wider organisational goals on a deeper level, as they’re actively involved in making decisions that impact the overall success of the business. This contributes to a happier, healthier working environment.

6. Strengthened collaboration

Members of a self-managed team work together to make decisions, delegate tasks and define processes. By enabling a more flexible approach to performing their roles, this makes it easier for individuals to support each other, switch between tasks, and make changes to the proposed schedule.

This can be particularly useful in the context of unforeseen circumstances, such as an employee being absent from work due to illness right before an important deadline. Rather than being siloed into individual roles overseen by a single manager, team members are better informed about the responsibilities of others, and more accustomed to taking initiative.

7. Increased innovation

In traditional organisational structures, employees in leadership roles such as managers and department directors tend to be responsible for putting forward new ideas. However, this limits the talent pool from which these innovations are drawn, which can lead to stagnation.

By giving the entire team equal opportunities to make suggestions, organisations can benefit from new perspectives and fresh ideas that can drive the business forward. It also allows for developments from those responsible for carrying out the work, rather than from senior managers who lack hands-on experience in the day-to-day challenges of their employees’ roles.

What are the challenges of self-managed teams?

While there are many benefits, there are also certain considerations that need to be addressed before adopting the self-managed team model. Exploring the potential drawbacks will help you to identify and mitigate negative effects early, helping to improve the overall success of your workforce. However, in some cases you may find that the challenges outweigh the positives, and that self-managed teams aren’t right for your organisation.

Need for strong communication and conflict resolution skills

To ensure success in any team, strong communication and conflict resolution skills are essential. This makes it easier to address issues promptly, maintain a positive working environment, and ensure that everyone is aligned with the team’s goals and expectations.

Time management and prioritisation

While traditional team leaders may have fewer task-related responsibilities, allowing them to focus more of their time on managing others, those in self-managed teams may find it more difficult to juggle this alongside their own workloads. It can also be difficult for them to prioritise tasks in the best interests of the organisation, rather than to their own preferences.

Free riding and unequal contribution

As each team member is responsible for managing themselves, it can be harder to pick up on patterns of unequal contribution. This could mean that certain tasks are consistently falling to the same individuals, or that the standard of work is inconsistent throughout the team.

Lack of direction and goal alignment

Without a clear leader, self-managing teams may struggle with a lack of direction and goal alignment. This can result in confusion, inefficient use of resources and missed objectives, ultimately hindering the team’s overall performance.

Decision-making speed and efficiency

A democratic approach to decision making can be useful to provide balance and a wider range of insights. However, without a clear leader to make the final call, it can be difficult for teams to reach a conclusion. This could be particularly troublesome for time-sensitive issues and emergency situations.

Need for training and development

It’s usually the case that the manager or leader of a team has certain hard and soft skills that enable them to effectively guide others. For a self-managed team to operate successfully, it’s important that each member has the necessary skills and traits to support their peers while also thriving in their own roles. Additional training could be required to develop these skills and ensure that the team functions smoothly.

Self-managed teams: are they right for your small business?

Self-managed teams offer a flexible and dynamic approach to work that can benefit small businesses by giving employees greater autonomy and an improved sense of ownership over their roles. This is particularly beneficial for SMBs offering flexible or hybrid working, as it places less importance on one-on-one management.

With strong communication, mutual trust, and a shared vision, self-managed teams can effectively manage their workloads, solve problems collaboratively and stay aligned with business goals. However, they also require individuals to be disciplined, self-motivated, and equipped with the necessary skills to support each other, and might not be suitable for all industries or workforces.

HR software can help businesses to support self-managed teams, giving them the collaborative tools they need to manage workloads, review employee performance and track training and development initiatives. Take advantage of our free demo to see PeopleHR in action for yourself.

Jake Fields
By Jake Fields New Business Sales Representative

Jake Fields is a New Business Sales Representative at Access PeopleHR. With a diverse background spanning customer service, training, and sales, he is a seasoned professional in all things HR software. Jake's global training experience has cultivated strong client relationships across a range of industries. A true people person at heart, his mission is to provide tailored solutions and support individuals throughout their HR journey.