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Voice from the workplace: Self-directed teams

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Voice from the workplace

We continue with our series looking at problems experienced by an employee working for a government organisation and how HR can help to put it right. In this instalment, John Pope advises on how to implement and maintain a successful self-directed team.


The employee’s perspective: Self-directed teams – who is in charge?

A reorganisation recently turned us into a ‘self-directed team’. Cut off from the nearest manager by 15 miles or so, the director, when asked what should happen when there was a problem, said: “What kind of problems? There should be no problems.” Try telling that to a customer when they insist on seeing someone in charge. There are three line managers and each cover an area which has two sites. They will change areas every six months on a rota system, and I don’t know how they will ever get to know their staff.

We all hold the same job but one thinks herself as ‘the manager’. A team that worked pretty well together with a line manager in the building has turned into an unhappy team with no clear direction. A couple of us feel aggrieved that we seem to be doing all the complicated work, while others less able are ‘busy’ with other things. A manager on site would see what was happening.

All this is not helped by at least one member of our team believing one of the full-time staff was more senior to others because she was full-time even though one part-timer has been doing the job for much longer. This feeling can be infectious: part-timers are just as important as full-timers.

“A team that worked pretty well together with a line manager in the building has turned into an unhappy team with no clear direction.”

To make matters worse, other managers started emailing this one colleague (even when she was on leave) about important information for the team. The line manager said that everyone was to be put on a rota system so that the work was shared out evenly and that everyone took a turn at the more tedious or unpleasant duties.

Leave and days off were to be put electronically to be seen and organised by the managers; all the other sites have the system implemented. This was greeted by “it won’t work here, it is fine as it is”, by the rest of the team. Nothing much has changed.

When the line manager visits, usually half a day once a week, the ‘self-appointed manager’ always makes sure she makes herself available for the whole time to go through things, making sure everyone else is dealing with the customers, so they can be in a room together. The rest of the team feel out of the loop.

The line manager came down to do ‘one-to-ones’ the other week. She was told what was happening, that things were being made worse by singling out one person to deliver messages etc. My one-to-one with the new team leader took longer than most of the others. In it, I had voiced my concerns about what was happening. Afterwards, I discovered that when new changes were brought up, one of the team thought the team leader and I had been in cahoots.

A colleague said the other day that she thought that most of us were stressed – I wonder why?


John Pope responds

Confused? Difficult to follow? A clear description of a small team in a real mess. So what’s wrong, why, and how can it be put right? Add your views and comments. Don’t just take mine, which follow:

What was senior management thinking of? Staff and cost saving probably, and not having to give one of the team members a supervising allowance. Did they understand what was involved and the conditions for success for a self-directed team? I doubt it, but it probably sounded modern and good. What were HR doing? Did they know and understand what was planned and warn the management of possible problems? I doubt that too. Does HR know what is going on – and going wrong?

Can self-directed teams ever be successful?

My answer is a clear yes. A fighting patrol in the desert is pretty close to a self-directed team, and it works well when all:

  • Have a very clear objective
  • Are well trained in their own jobs, and can do the important parts of each other’s jobs well
  • Have practised together, worked together under difficulties, know and understand each other better than their own mothers do
  • Are all in it together knowing that the penalty for not working together would be failure.

These are not normally the conditions in an office, let alone when some are part-timers and when objectives are mixed and unclear.

What should senior management have done?

There is a lot which could have been done. They should have:

  • Really understood the concept of the self-directed team and its limitations rather than grasping at a 15-year-old buzz word of doubtful use
  • Thought about the nature of the work, its range, difficulty and planned how to deal with difficult issues – a bit of consultation with the existing staff would have helped
  • Checked on the capability of all members of the local team and either raised the level of knowledge and skill or removed a member who was unable to do the work
  • Arranged for regular and frequent supervision by the ‘line manager’
  • Dealt with the problems in the systems, cleaned up the procedures
  • Taken the advice of HR.

What should HR have done?

  • Got onto the management’s plan early before decisions were made
  • Raised the question of skills and competence and arranged training
  • Been around, found out what was going on
  • Advised the ‘line manager’ of possible issues
  • Kept on top of the HR problem until it was solved – checked up on progress.

What should the line manager do now?

  • Find out what really goes on
  • Have each member of the team in alone and discuss all the issues in confidence, questioning them until she knows what really is going on. A good manager knows how to get at the truth and the facts; an inexperienced one may need to be trained in doing this.
  • Get the whole team together. Reinforce the aim – dispel illusions about any ‘seniority’, resolve problems with the system, reinforce or ensure work disciplines.

What should team members do?

  • Ask for help from the line manager
  • Bring frustrations out in the open, not hide them.

What are the general lessons?

Well, that’s up to you, and I will find your comments interesting. Your professional colleagues, however, will find them valuable. We could and should learn more from the experiences of professionals in HR than from consultants like me. Mutual training can be far more effective.


Previous articles in the series:
HR – who are they and what do they do?
Why do we mismanage people?


John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and seen management fashions come and go. He has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. John can be contacted at [email protected]


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