Why do companies still struggle with self-directed work teams in 2016?


For those unfamiliar with the concept of self-directed work teams, it’s a shift away from a typical top-down organizational structure, where one or a group of leaders set strategic direction and comes up with solutions to problems, then delegate tasks. In lieu of a traditional organizational structure, many companies are flattening their hierarchies and decentralizing power, making every employee a “stakeholder” with ownership in the company and the ability to work whenever and however he or she sees fit. These companies rely on small, self-managing teams tasked with solving specific problems.

Although SDWTs have been around for decades, they’ve been made famous in recent years by companies like Valve, the software and gaming company that produced the landmark “Half Life” series of first-person shooter games, and Zappos, which lost 14% of its workforce to a voluntary buyout during the final phases of its transformation to full-blown self-management last year.

And it’s not only cutting-edge companies who are ditching traditional hierarchies in favor of a team-based structure. Deloitte’s “Global Human Capital Trends Report 2016”, which reports the findings from a survey of more than 7,000 business leaders in 130 countries, showed more than 80% of respondents were either currently restructuring their organization or had recently completed the process to place more emphasis on teams. SDWTs have become so en vogue that even some of the most staunchly conservative organizations are getting in on the trend—The Cleveland Clinic recently reorganized its medical staff into teams focused on particular treatment areas, and General Stanley McChrystal described in his book Team of Teams how the army’s hierarchy hindered operations early in Iraq.

But as many organizations are finding out, the promise of SDWTs is often met with crushing disappointment and organizational turmoil as teams succumb to apathy, indecision, infighting, or any number of other dysfunctions and organizational goals go unmet.

“I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary, a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty,” the late J. Richard Hackman said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. “But don’t count on it. Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have.”

Why do SDWTs so rarely live up to their promise? One of the answers is in the way teams are organized.

Functional versus psychological roles

People have two roles within a team: functional and psychological. Functional roles are determined by a person’s position, title, or hard skills. If I were assembling a team to launch a new web app, for instance, it would make sense to have members who were skilled in design, web development, and user experience, as well as a manager whose job it was to make decisions, set priorities, delegate tasks, and report progress up the chain.

Psychological roles are informal roles which people naturally gravitate to based on their personalities. When individuals are formed into a team and given a task, there are five psychological roles to which people naturally gravitate: results, relationships, process, innovation, and pragmatism.

  • Results is the natural leader of the group whose function is to communicate the team’s vision, organize work, evaluate outcomes and hold team members accountable for their contributions.
  • Relationships is more concerned with maintaining concord and cooperation within the team.
  • Innovation is critical for coming up with out-of-the-box, creative solutions to problems.
  • Pragmatism is practical and can be argumentative. He or she promotes realistic approaches to problems.
  • Process is concerned with implementation, and tends to be reliable and organized, and careful to follow rules.

A team with the right balance of people in results, relationships, innovation, process, and pragmatism roles will ensure diversity of viewpoints and work well together.

Organizations like Zappos and Valve are able to create high-performing teams because they allow employees to move fluidly between teams until they find one for which both their functional roles and psychological roles are a natural fit. The problem most traditional organizations is management organizes SDWTs based on members’ functional roles, which means the team’s psychological roles are typically out of balance.

This insight leaves large organizations wishing to implement SDWTs with two options: (1) allow employees to spend time moving from project to project until they find a team on which they naturally fit, or (2) use a tool like the Hogan Team Report to identify gaps and and balance teams’ psychological roles.

To learn more about how balancing psychological roles can help boost team performance, check out our latest ebook, The Secret to Successful Teams: Conflict.