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How to Lead a Self-Managing Team

Many companies organize employees into self-managing teams that are basically left to run themselves with some guidance from an external leader. In fact, comprehensive surveys report that 79% of companies in the Fortune 1,000 currently deploy such “empowered,” “self-directed” or “autonomous” teams. Because of their widespread use, much research has been devoted to understanding how best to set up self-managing teams to maximize their effectiveness. Interestingly, though, relatively little attention has been paid to the leaders who must oversee such working groups.

At first, it seems contradictory: Why should a self-managing team require any leadership at all? But the authors’ research has shown that self-managing teams require a particular kind of leadership. Specifically, the external leaders who contribute most to their team’s success tend to excel at one skill: managing the boundary between the team and the larger organization. That process requires specific behaviors that can be grouped into four basic functions: (1) moving back and forth between the team and the broader organization to build relationships, (2) scouting necessary information, (3) persuading the team and outside constituents to support one another, and (4) empowering team members.

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