New Roles in Team Leadership

By Jessup, Harlan R. | Training & Development Journal, November 1990 | Go to article overview

New Roles in Team Leadership


Jessup, Harlan R., Training & Development Journal


New Roles in Team Leadership

What happens to former supervisors when an organization starts using self-managed work teams?

After 27 years with the company--the last 12 as a supervisor--Tom suddenly felt hollow and sour about his job.

He had just come from a meeting with the production and human resource managers. They had explained in an upbeat way that supervisors weren't appropriate or necessary in supporting the new "self-managed work teams." Instead supervisors such as Tom would become coaches, whatever that meant, and were to relate to the work teams in more supportive ways.

All too often, enthusiasts of organizational transformation have enlisted the support of production workers (with some success), and have left supervisors such as Tom hanging by their fingernails. Many of the displaced managers have been promised continued employment with new job titles. Some have been given some sort of training in "Theory Y" skills. But few have adequately understood the tasks and responsibilities of their new jobs as administrators, coaches, and advisors.

This creates frustrated and discouraged ex-supervisors. But another consequence is far more serious: work teams are hindered in reaching their full potential, and, in the worst cases, fail altogether.

In many industries, self-managed work team applications have shown that the work of those who immediately support the teams can be defined by three roles: administrator, coach, and advisor. These are seldom specific organizational positions. Instead, they are "hats" that anyone in direct support of the teams may wear on different occasions.

To understand the roles, we first must agree on definitions of "self-managed work teams" and their internal leadership roles.

Work team definitions

Self-managed work teams are small groups of co-workers (perhaps eight to fifteen) who share tasks and responsibilities for a well-defined segment of work. At best they exhibit the principle of "whole work"--planning, executing, and measuring whole operations, whether building whole components or providing one-stop shopping services for clients.

The work of self-managed teams has clearly defined inputs and outputs and clearly defined customers, either internal or external. The teams often use multiple skills for enhanced flexibility. They are accountable for the traditional measures of performance, such as product or service quality, on-time delivery, productivity, and cost control.

As work teams demonstrate their capability and maturity, they are given increasing responsibility for decisions that affect their work. Initial responsibilities may include selection of team leaders and scheduling of breaks and lunch periods. Maturing teams may select new team members and may control material deliveries and stock withdrawals. Advanced teams may conduct peer appraisals and--through ever more creative problem solving--may achieve challenging goals that are genuine contributions to business objectives. All of these self-managed groups can be classified under the heading, "work teams."

Internal leadership

If work teams are to take on responsibilities and achieve results, they must have internal structure. In many cases, a team agrees to elect a team leader for a defined term. Problems with this arrangement have included mere substitution of an hourly for a salaried supervisor, questions of extra compensation for the leader, and limits to the skills and available hours of the person elected.

Members of a North Carolina team thought true autonomy meant that they should operate with no leader at all, making every decision by consensus. They met every morning at the bulletin board to make work assignments. That worked well, but when priorities changed during work shifts, it was impractical to call meetings. They began to lose autonomy as decisions were made at higher levels. …

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