The Effect of Superleader Behavior on Autonomous Work Groups in a Government Operated Railway Service

By Elloy, David F.; Randolph, Alan | Public Personnel Management, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Effect of Superleader Behavior on Autonomous Work Groups in a Government Operated Railway Service


Elloy, David F., Randolph, Alan, Public Personnel Management


In recent years, the concept of autonomous work groups has gained increasing interest.(2) Stemming from the concept of socio-technical systems, autonomous work groups that have developed(3) and increasingly been used as a form of work system, particularly as pressures are exerted on organizations to become more responsive to the competitive environment.(4) Several hundred plants in the United States have adopted a self-managing work design(5) and more than a thousand are moving towards a more participative design.

Autonomous work groups have a number of key characteristics. They consist of a small group of individuals (eight-15) who share the tasks, but accept responsibility for a well-defined segment of the work. (6) They are generally responsible for completing a whole unit of work,(7) performing a variety of tasks and utilizing a number of skills, which the group as a whole possess.(8) Job feedback is important to the work group so that variance from goal attainment can be controlled by group members within a defined boundary of work area.(9)

Outcomes such as increased employee satisfaction, the opportunity for increased socialization in the workplace, increased autonomy, opportunity to learn new skills, and aspects such as reduced absenteeism and turnover, and increased performance and motivation, have all been said to stem from the implementation of autonomous work groups.(10) However, much of the research into the actual processes at work within the autonomous work group, and their effect upon these outcomes has not provided answers as to why such phenomena occur. It may even be legitimate to say that in some cases, proposed outcomes are not linked to the autonomous work group, but to some other unacknowledged processes, suggesting the need for further research. The amount of sound research into this area has made it particularly difficult to evaluate the worth of such new systems. Although the concept of highly participative work designs that offer high levels of autonomy for individuals are intuitively attractive, their ultimate worth in terms of organizational outcomes requires further investigation.

Autonomous Work Groups and the External Leader

An important aspect of the autonomous work group concept that has received little attention in past research is the role of the leader of the group. Research into the role of the informal leader has been the focal point for most of the published research; there is very little research available on the role of the external leader on the functioning of the group. This could be due mainly to the fact that the basic idea behind autonomous work groups is that group members are perceived to be in total control over their work environment and are responsible for all tasks within their group. The role of external leader is, therefore, often presumed redundant and has been of little interest to researchers in the past.

Recently, however, some researchers(11) have begun to look at the role of external leaders upon the effectiveness of autonomous work groups. The changing nature of their own positions under autonomous work group settings are also examined. Far from becoming redundant, it is suggested that the external leader has moved away from the traditional role of supervision and control to a highly facilitative style of management. Their influence is much less direct, but is still essential for the effectiveness of the group.

Initially the term "external leader" might seem a misnomer where the basis of the autonomous work group is self-management. However, self-management represents the goal for the autonomous work group situation. In fact, the formal supervisor or manager continues to play a role in the functioning of almost all autonomous work groups. Leadership, when applied to autonomous work groups is reflected in the idea of "a person who leads others to lead themselves."(12) Termed the "Superleader,"(13) the idea of the formal leader in the autonomous work group system implies that the leader is working towards making his or her own position eventually redundant through guiding the group towards total self-management. …

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