Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 131
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Self-Managed Teams

Researchers explore the factors that make work teams successful when they manage themselves.

Remember rotary dial telephones? You won't find too many around most business offices today. They're obsolete. Would you believe executives in many of the largest companies in the U.S. are making the same conclusions about first-line supervisors?! In a recent survey of Fortune 1000 companies, 47% reported using self-managing work teams with at least some of their employees, many with no supervisor at all.

The role of the supervisor has evolved from the foreman of early industrial organization. At the turn of the century, this person was the expert who corrected mistakes, trained and coached for efficient performance, and noticed and cared if the job was done well. Without the foreman, work gradually ended and workers sat idle.

Today, workers are often the experts, knowing more about their work than their supervisors. They receive training from specialists, and they often schedule and organize their own work. And in many companies, for a few departments, executives are eliminating the supervisor. As usual, the primary aim is to make things better, to improve productivity and morale, and to cut costs.

Susan Cohen, of U.S.C.'s Center for Effective Organizations in Los Angeles, is interested in self-managed work teams, and recently noticed a neglect of the subject in others' research. To be sure, professors had offered theories to explain how these teams function without a supervisor, but no one had ever gone into the field to study a large number of them. So Professor Cohen took on the challenge. She found a large, cooperative telephone company, and led a research team that studied 51 self-managed teams.

Cohen's group considered earlier theories and measured all the major factors these professors thought might be important. Next, Cohen compared the results with measures of team performance taken at the same time: mid-level manager ratings, teams' own perceptions of their performance, their satisfaction working for the telephone company, and absenteeism.

Several factors emerged in the analysis, and Cohen named the most important quality employee involvement. It involves training, information, resources, power, and rewards. We train people to recognize the value and importance of information we give them about work processes, quality, customers, business performance, competitors' actions, and organizational changes. We give people resources to efficiently accomplish their work, and the power to make decisions that will help them make efficient use of these resources. And we tie rewards for individuals to team performance and the development of capabilities. Self-managed teams reporting high levels of these qualities were the best performing.

A big surprise emerged when Cohen compared supervisory behaviors with performance. Earlier theorists had guessed that if the supervisor was missing, other team members would fill in by providing behaviors supervisors normally provide: encouraging others' efforts, setting goals, monitoring and evaluating performance, and criticizing poor performance. Cohen discovered that self-managed teams reporting high levels of these behaviors were the worst performing.

Professor Cohen explains that these supervisory behaviors either caused poor performance or were a reaction to it, but she suspects the former. She believes her findings should be a caution to members of self-managed teams to refrain from providing supervisory behaviors, and to executives not to encourage them.

Cohen recommends executives select teams that work with information who relate well with each other: customer service people, for example. These executives should enhance employee involvement factors, training, information, resources, power, and rewards. She labels this effort creating an empowering organization, and she believes executives should focus on it if they want self-managed teams to be successful.

Reference: Cohen, Susan G., Gerald E. Ledford, Jr., and Gretchen M. Spreitzer (1996). A Predictive Model of Self-Managing Work Team Effectiveness. Human Relations, 49 (5), 643-676.

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