What makes self-managing teams successful?

“Self-managing team (SMT) structures have evolved as an optimal approach to increase flexibility and performance”

Can self-managing teams really work? Are there certain organisations in which they’ll thrive? If so, what are the characteristics of those companies? And why is it that some SMTs are high-performing and others fail?

These are just some of the questions which new research published in Small Group Research seeks to answer. Nina Magpili and Pilar Pazos examined the factors that help and hinder the success of self-managing teams (SMTs) and in doing so, provide a helpful template which practitioners and organisations can use.

The research

The researchers carried out a systematic literature review to explore the characteristics which help and hinder SMTs.

In the first instance, they conducted a multiple database search and from this, identified 695 studies and articles. They then carried out a second targeted search using inclusion criteria and subsequently, reduced the number down to 195 published studies. Of these, 82 were quantitative and 83 were qualitative.

They then reviewed the literature against the team effectiveness framework from the work of Mathieu et al (2008) which breaks down factors into individual, team and organisational levels.

The findings


a) Individual autonomy: The more people operate individually, the less likely the SMT is to be successful. The more interdependent the task, the lower the individual autonomy should be.

b) Individual roles: Roles in SMTs tend to evolve and change as work requirements change. Fluidity is key, with people stepping in and out of different roles as needed. Careful management is needed.

c) Leadership: Competence-based leadership was found to be crucial and within this, the ability to develop and promote team cohesion and norms, build commitment and delegate effectively.

d) Self-management skills: Success is linked to a willingness to structure work processes and accept responsibilities; and ability to self-regulate, self-motivate and exhibit resilience during tough times.

e) Technical skills: Successful SMTs tended to have highly skilled experts across a number of disciplines. The more diverse the skills the more it was found to help flexibility and collaboration.

f) Teamwork skills: These include building relationships, communication and conducting team meetings effectively. Technical skills don’t necessarily mitigate against a lack of teamwork skills.

g) Resistance to change: This was quite common for organisations moving to a SMT structure. Clear and careful explanation of SMT philosophy, purpose and benefits could help reduce resistance. This included site visits to other organisations already using SMTs.

h) Work-experience: The more experienced a SMT becomes, the more autonomous and less dependent on managers they are. They are also more likely to develop innovative solutions.


a) External leadership: Successful SMTs had external leaders who evolved from a directing role to a supporting one, adapting to the team as they mature and helping to develop team practices.

b) Peer control: Social influence can help improve productivity, especially when team rewards dependent on peer evaluation.

c) Task characteristics: The more variety, meaning and significance a task has the more successful the SMT was likely to be in achieving it. Task novelty and innovativeness were also important.

d) Team autonomy: The more the other factors outlined were in place, the more likely autonomy would be achieved. If autonomy was revoked due to a failure, team members were likely to become resentful if they felt the failure was beyond their control.


a) Skill diversity: While some studies showed skill diversity can help performance, different professional backgrounds can also create conflict through issues such as perceived status differences. As a SMT’s maturity grows, the better they are at handling skill diversity.


a) Corporate culture: Organisations with values which actively promote and live accountability, autonomy and risk-taking are more likely to have successful SMTs. Unsurprisingly, traditional, top-down, hierarchical cultures can prevent SMTs succeeding.

b) Corporate policies: Highly prescriptive, formal, documented norms and policies are likely to impeded SMTs. Letting SMTs develop their own norms and policies can help.

c) National culture: Characteristics such as power-distance, collectivism and individualism can play a role in SMTs success. Those members from high-power distance and/or high uncertainty avoidance cultures are more likely to be uncomfortable with the autonomous nature of SMTs.

d) Organisational goals: Goal clarity was found to be a significant predictor of SMT performance. This was dependent on an effective feedback-loop between the SMT and organisation being in effect.

e) Organisational structure: Hierarchical structures were likely to constrain collaboration and hence, SMT performance. Flatter structures were more beneficial for SMTs.

f) Training: Many of the qualitative studies showed training to be a key factor.  This needs to start before a SMT is implemented and should be continuous, rather than one-off.

g) Resources: The qualitative studies, in particular, showed that access to resources was crucial for SMT success, especially in the early days of formation.

h) Rewards: There was general agreement that team-based rewards can help performance, along with social incentives such as being nominated an informal leader. Performance-based rewards were dependent on the SMT having access to adequate resources.

Implications and solutions

“SMT success is far from an overnight success story. Evidence suggests that developing and eradicating habits takes time”

With the changing nature of work, along with the rise of automation and AI, lots of organisations across different sectors looking at how teams are structured. Some of HALO Psychology’s clients have been wondering about the feasibility of self-managing teams.

As this comprehensive research shows, careful consideration is needed particularly if the organisation concerned is a traditional and perhaps, bureaucratic one. Here are some ideas for practitioners and managers to consider:

  1. Clearly define the competencies you need in each specific SMT and then use this for selection, training and continuous development.
  2. Develop those in the external leader role so that they are able to handle the delicate balance of allowing autonomy with giving clear guidance.
  3. Help SMT members clarify what shared leadership looks like and how leadership responsibilities will be coordinated.
  4. Develop the team’s skills specifically around resilience, risk-taking and problem solving. The resilience aspect is key particularly when a SMT is in the middle of an organisation’s transition from one culture to another.
  5. Think carefully about your change management and have a transition plan in place if your SMT is part of the move from one culture (traditional, hierarchical) to another (autonomous). This is also relevant in helping managers who will have learned how to manage in one state and now need to move to a new and for some, a fundamentally different style.
  6. Help the team develop a charter setting out roles, responsibilities and norms, including how they will handle conflict.
  7. Put in place a programme of team building and development. This can be a combination of training but should also focus on how the team members work together. For example, a one-day event at the beginning and end of a calendar year, along with half-day sessions once a quarter.
  8. Offer reward and recognition that takes in to account the variety of skills and roles across the SMT. Asking the SMT members what recognition and reward would motivate their performance is a good place to start.
  9. Carefully align SMT goals with organisational goals, making clear what success looks like. As part of this, have in place monthly reporting and quarterly reviews to ensure things are on track and identify where things might need changing or re-alignment.

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