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by Peter Block
by Cathy Kramer
Views for a Change
Letters to the Editor
Views For A Change
John Runyan Responds
These questions most surely resonate
with leaders and change agents around the country as
businesses everywhere turn from traditional hierarchical
structures to many forms of self-directed work
Organizations have a variety of reasons for turning to
these special work teams. For example, some simply want
to eliminate whole layers of management and supervision
in a single sweep. Others are experimenting with creating
new teams to take on tasks and opportunities that have
not existed before. And, finally, others want to really
leverage the multiple talents and power of teams across
the board while retaining their supervisors as on-going
members of these teams. It is these latter organizations
that I would most like to address.
Supervisors who continue as members of self-directed work
teams can sometimes choose and be chosen to play various
roles. For example, if they are to take on the role of a
new team leader, they have the challenge of maintaining a
kind of leadership role, but shifting their style from
one of exercising authority and direction to sharing
responsibility and power with the team.
To me, this means becoming the developer of capacity and
talent throughout the team. What used to be only one
modest part of the supervisor role now becomes primary.
When I put myself in this developer of talent role, I
believe that my abilities to inquire and listen are the
keys to providing the support and coaching that other
team members need. Team members of newly-formed
self-directed work teams tell me that there is no
substitute for simply being included and heard about what
matters to them most - and then being respected and
trusted to make a contribution. Being included and heard
involves helping to set team agendas, rotating meeting
leadership and facilitation roles, and shaping job
designs and work priorities in ways that take all into
account. When team leaders offer these opportunities and
then expect the best from their members and behave in
ways consistent with that expectation, they often get the
best from those teams.
In some other organizations, former supervisors become
team member peers of those they are joining in this new
working configuration. In this situation, these former
managers need to find ways to turn away from some of
their directive inclinations and style and turn toward an
array of behaviors, which may or may not have been part
of their repertoire.
In particular, I believe the primary role for these
previous managers is one of catalyst for team learning.
What I know directly from my own experience in developing
self-directed work teams is that learning how to share
responsibility takes initiative, persistence and
patience. Time and again I have seen former supervisors
who have personally declared their openness to mutual
learning - and others struggling to make sense of the
demands of self-direction. Thinking and acting
congruently means being willing to bring all of yourself
to the effort, for example, by both being opinionated and
responsive to others ideas. Acting collegially also means
taking on small, day-to-day team chores cheerfully as
well as taking a pro-active role in the larger shared
leadership tasks of the team. Reaching this balanced
give-and-take with former subordinates is not always
easy, but it is essential to being a strong team member.
The great reward of this work is seeing fellow team
members blossom into more articulate, capable and
dependable colleagues and contributors to team
You ask about how to get former supervisors aligned and
in support of self-directed work teams initiatives.
The answers are many, but they are all built from
fundamental values of engagement, trust and
o First, put yourself in their shoes.
Inquire, listen and empathize.
o Don't assume that you know what is in their heads and
o Acknowledge their dilemmas and deal with them in open,
straight ways. This includes being clear when downsizing
and de-layering is some or most of the reason for moving
o Talk openly with them about what they may be losing as
they shift into this new working world. Don't deny their
o Invite them to explore the opportunity that they have
to serve in the role of catalyst for learning - both
their own and others.
o Offer them the option of a mutual learning and support
group for themselves as a special subset of former
o Listen to and learn from their experience as an
important constituency in the large-scale
organizational change work.
o Offer those who struggle with these new team member
roles a chance to serve as valued individual
contributors, when this is possible in the new
By working in these basically sound
ways, you can open your organization to the value that
these former supervisors can bring, if you and they so