Regulating self-managing teams

- Challenges in a post-bureaucratic era

Some firms are relying on self-managing teams in response to the need for innovation and agility. Nonetheless, moving towards ‘self-managing teams’ modifies the regulation of organizational conduct with practical and conceptual implications, such as defining how to regulate teams which would be supposed to regulate themselves.

A widespread adoption of new organizational forms with an i ncreasing reliance on self-managing teams has grown in response to the vital need for innovation and agility to achieve competitive advantage. This change has undoubtedly generated power shifts, that have so far been poorly analysed.

By ‘Self-managing teams’ we identify groups of social actors operating within the firm but regulating their own behaviour without the need for any approval or the necessity for the involvement of any related management. As management does not interfere, managers are limited in their actions, and removed from the “conceptual centre” of the organization, following the idea of “de-apexing” that is the exclusion of a hierarchy and a move towards an heterarchical relationship.

Thus, moving towards ‘self-managing teams’ requires a change in the regulation of the organizational conduct, and a shift in power, with relevant practical and conceptual implications. In this light, one challenge which proves exciting is surely to define how to regulate teams which would be supposed to regulate themselves.

The challenges posed by the self-regulation of a system regulating itself

In the realm of self-regulation, management’s involvement is not contemplated, nor sought, in direct steering; the distinctive difference between “self-“ and “co-“ regulation is indeed the absence of any managerial involvement. The core idea is related to delegating power, through mutual and shared effort of all those involved (non-managerial) – actors.

Nonetheless, when the environment poses challenges – e.g. changes, jolts, excessive dynamism, innovation requirements – the need to steer teams towards higher performance levels or precise directions can increase pressures on the management, and on the need to identify an approach to exert a regulation of the “self-regulating” teams, identify opportunities, and choose new paths.

Within traditional organizational forms, regulation follows the command and control structure, defined as ‘centred’: management, being the main controller, exercises its regulating power, by adopting a unilateral and linear approach, progressing from the ideation to the application and implementation of policies. Structures based on “centred” logic risk that managers stand too far from the core of problems, and thus are limited in their capacity to correctly identify problems and/or to formulate proper solutions (information failure), apply regulation (implementation failure), or motivate (motivation failure).

On the other hand, within a “de-centred” logic of regulation, typical of self-managing teams, despite the lower risk for information, implementation or motivation failure, other problems may arise:

The first is related to the Complexity of the relationships among organizational actors and the social problems that may follow from the interaction of a great number of actors differing in goals and power, and not always easily identifiable The second problem is associated to the fragmented and distributed knowledge, generating information asymmetries. Simply put, not all actors possess the correct knowledge or information to decide on conduct; while everybody possess key elements needed, no individual fully owns the necessary information or instruments. In this light, managers and teams do not necessarily end up in situations in which teams have needs and managers offer solutions.

”The core idea is related to delegating power, through mutual and shared effort of all those involved (non-managerial) – actors”

It is actually more common that both groups possess needs and solutions, posing the challenge to find matches among the two. This follows the idea of “autopoiesis” nothing is truly ‘objective’ because, given that knowledge is fragmented and distributed, information in unevenly distributed and socially crafted. Thus, autopoietically closed systems, as in the case of self-managing teams, by using their own cognitive schemas, create images of other sub-systems that can be distorted and developed through the interaction with the environment. The third problem is the distribution of power and control: within self-regulated teams managers do not possess exclusive power of control and this produces fragmentation and autonomy among social actors. This problem stands at the bases of the fourth problmem, as real or perceived autonomy and a lack of formal interventions allows actors to perpetrate misbehaviours. Being the ‘conduct of conduct’ regulation assumes different dimensions for the different organizational actors and can provoke changes in their behaviour that might be unintentional.

”In self-managing team based organizations, identity regulation has become the core lever of organizational control”

Being the product of interactions among a plethora of social actors, characterized by the aforementioned problems of fragmentation, distribution, and autonomy, a final problem is related to the fact that regulation is not enforced through formal sanctions – rather, the sanction is informal and derives from the interactions among actors, and not from a recognized authority of government.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned issues, team members in self-managing teams are usually proactive in their efforts, monitoring and checking their behaviour and targeting goals, self-reflecting on their effectiveness, following established social forces like norms, institutions or identity. The regulation in de-centred structures therefore results from the interplay between the ‘self’ and the environment.

In this context, rationality plays a crucial role, especially as it is weighed following “external” standards. Evaluating individual or group choices is important in order to understand how much the cognitive capacity or the belief systems come into play to solve the problems faced by individuals, groups and communities.

The central lever of self-regulation

What seems to be a key issue, when trying to move a step further in understanding how to regulate the “self-regulated” is therefore the theme of identity, defined as a cognitive image held by individuals within the organization that is used to make sense of the world. Identity heavily influences people’s cognition at the base of people’s self-regulatory focus.

Identity definition is central to the coordination discourse in such new organizational forms. It provides rules of action helping organizational actors managing ambiguity and cognitive limitations, by emphasizing particular issues and problems. It also gives directions on setting the issues that are urgent and demand attention, and thus looking for proper solutions.

In self-managing team based organizations, identity regulation has become the core lever of organizational control. This implies a re-formulation of managerial tasks. Managers are, thus, effective when they create proper conditions for identity regulation. In this sense, the managerial role is to be conceptualized as the management of meaning, where managing meaning is strongly connected to managing identity, given that meaning is contingent upon identity.

To identify relevant processes of identity regulation, it is crucial that managers:

1) analyse the contextual environment surrounding team members in detail and over time;

2) take into account that team identity is dependent on shared beliefs and on the values of  stakeholders interacting with the team and on the content and rate of feedback loops provided for the team’s work;

3) formulate interventions aimed at improving the visibility of a team’s working processes to management  and to keep a coordination role inside the team in order to more easily align individual behaviours  to organizational identity and culture.

Suggested Readings

Annosi, M. C., & Brunetta, F. (2017). New Organizational Forms, Controls, and Institutions: Understanding the Tensions in ‘Post-Bureaucratic’ Organizations. Springer.

Black, J. (2001). Decentring Regulation: Understanding the role of regulation and self-regulation in a ‘post-regulatory’ world. Current legal problems, 54(1), 103.

Manz, C. C., & Sims Jr, H. P. (1987). Leading workers to lead themselves: The external leadership of self-managing work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 106-129.

Maria Carmela Annosi
Professor at the Management Studies Group of the School of Social Sciences at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
She received her PhD at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Netherlands. Fellow in Management at LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy, her research interests include knowledge and innovation management.



Federica Brunetta
Assistant Professor at the Department of Business and Management, LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy.
She received a PhD from the Catholic University of Sacred Heart, Italy, and has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, USA. Her research interests include strategy and management of innovation.

Fyll i ett sökord och tryck på Enter