Leading Self-directed Teams


The topic of self-directed teams surfaced in a recent conversation with a few leaders around the dynamics of decision-making and authority on teams.

One leader asked, “How do you lead a self-directed team?” – a brilliant question with a complicated set of answers. I didn’t want to rely solely on my leadership experiences, despite having led a few self-directed teams, so I did a little research as well. The following are the thoughts at which I arrived in answer to that question, with hope that this topic and some guidance are helpful to your leadership and organization.

First, let’s define “self-directed team”:

Like all teams, our definition starts with the idea that teams are a group of two or more people, working together toward a common goal. The “self-directed” qualifier suggests this team operates without the “usual” administrative oversight other teams require. Because this seemed vague, I reached out to leaders I have known to have led or been part of self-directed teams. Here’s what they shared toward the definition:

Self-directed teams:

  • Have autonomy in spending financial resources (up to a defined limit).
  • Are empowered to make decisions that impact their work and the outcomes of efforts of the team.
  • Have authority to adjust processes, include resources and direction when needed to reach their goals.
  • Do not require approval for the above activities. This is a major defining point of self-directed teams.

The first step in leading self-directed teams is to understand why the team was structured as self-directing in the first place. This includes becoming socially and politically aware of the team, its members, and its purpose, mission, and goals.

Ensure that as a leader responsible for a self-directed team, you understand and have set the conditions and level of decision-making on the team, and that you actively maintain those conditions by redirecting back to the team if they seek approval for something they have the authority to decide. Scenario playing is helpful to illustrate a variety of types of decisions the team may make autonomously, with support, with approval, or where they may not make decisions at all.

As a leader of a self-directing team, you will want to ensure that psychological safety will be developed and nurtured. This is true for all teams, but especially self-directed teams. Building team trust is essential. You, as the leader, will be relatively less engaged with the team so they must learn to trust one another at very high levels and know how to work in and through conflict without intervention. Trust is the cornerstone of psychological safety.

Ensure that each team member’s needs are met and that they are equipped to care for themselves through energy renewal and self-care practices. Each member of the team must build resiliency to overcome difficulties while supporting one another and the work at hand. Self-care activities such as restful sleep, mindfulness practices, adequate hydration, and healthy nutrition may need to be fostered with some individuals so they can show up as their best selves for the team.

Typically, self-directed teams are designed to give employees a more complete sense of ownership of projects. While leaders of self-directed teams are not expected to be completely out of the loop, staying out of the way of the team is more at play than not. Allow the team to fail and recover independently; this fosters self-reliance and builds strong teams. There is a role for the leader, and they do best to serve self-directed teams from the sideline as a strong coach rather than a participating contributor to the actual work or project while balancing being available to support and redirect.

At the end of the conversation mentioned earlier in this blog, the leader who asked the question suggested there aren’t really any differences in leading a self-directing team compared to an ordinary team. They may be right … wink, wink!

What do you think?

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