The organisation of the manager has gone through a reorganisation process aiming at becoming more market-oriented and reducing management costs. New teams were established for four product groups which were introduced as ‘self-steering’. Management expected that the four teams would be able to define team targets and decide on priorities for team development. The teams were given the freedom to choose how to communicate, when to meet and how to divide tasks and roles. Members of the Management Team would guide the four teams in a ‘light’ manner, thus reducing the amount of required management time.  

Difficult and de-motivating
Soon, it appeared that most of the teams were struggling. Team meetings were chaotic and often without a clear agenda. Decision-making became more difficult and motivation of team members to attend meetings went down rapidly. Team members would give priority to other work rather than attending team meetings or doing team tasks. No one could hold them accountable for this.  

Highly motivated professionals not able to manage themselves
Why did this happen? Why are teams that are composed of independent and highly motivated professionals not able to manage themselves? The main reasons for failure in this case: 

  1. Management lacks vision on ‘self-steering’ 
    The teams felt that the decision to start with self-steering teams was taken without proper consultation with the staff. For many, it came as an unpleasant surprise. In fact, most staff wanted the managers to continue to lead the teams. A number of staff felt that the management wanted to try out self-steering without actually realizing what this would mean in practice. The decision of the management was felt as a half-hearted decision which was not backed by serious support and resources to make it work. It appeared that Management itself did not really believe in the new approach.
  2. Lack of guidance by management 
    Staff did not know what to do as a team and how to get started.  Management was unable to be specific about their expectations in terms of team productivity, acquisition targets and professional development. As a result, team members felt insecure and found it very difficult to take decisions. 
  3. Teams are not mature enough to lead themselves 
    All teams need effective leadership of some kind. Most of the teams in this organisation were new and loosely connected. Levels of trust and mutual accountability were rather low. This made it difficult to take joint decisions on team goals, team targets and a suitable working approach. There was little room for individual team members to assume a leadership role. As a result, the team felt like a steerless ship on a rough sea. Strong leadership was needed to set the direction, define targets and decide how to work.


Do you have a similar experience and want to know how to make successful self-steering teams in your organisation? We would love to hear from you! Get in touch with Jan Kuyper today to find out how we can support you. 

This blog was written by Jan Kuyper. Jan is consultant and course director of the Leadership, People and Management course in the Netherlands.