Leadership by Consensus: The Self-Sustaining Team

Manage by exception. Only require reporting when there is a deviation from the plan.” – Brian Tracy, American motivational and business author and speaker.

Leadership by Consensus: The Self-Sustaining Team by Laura Stack #productivityThere’s an approach to business leadership call “Management by Exception,” where the team leader allows their team or work group to go about its merry way without much in the way of guidance, intervening only when something goes seriously wrong. In most particulars, it’s the exact opposite of micromanaging; and while it’s a valid approach, I believe a manager should have an active role as a teammate as well as a leader, especially in these days of smaller, more flexible teams and lightning-fast execution.

Indeed, in the modern business arena, the leader has a special role as a facilitator. He or she scouts ahead and clears a trail for the team, making it easier for everyone else to do their jobs. This approach boosts productivity, since the team can then focus more tightly on its work.

I can see the appeal of management by exception, because it frees the team of the specter of the “helicopter boss” always hovering at their shoulders and telling them how to do their work. Some “exception managers” believe their job is to make themselves redundant. It’s a good idea to have such a well-trained, self-sufficient team that you can disappear for a few days without the team falling apart. ( ←CLICK TO TWEET) After all, how else can entrepreneurs and small business owners ever take time off?

But even the best of teams still needs some oversight, not to mention a liaison who will go bat for them with upper management, and serve as a fearless trailblazer. This doesn’t mean, however, that even a more tightly managed team can’t be largely self-sufficient and self-policing, taking care of itself from the inside so well that it needs only the occasional managerial nudge, clarification, or red-tape removal to reach its goals. The team members do their jobs, the manager stays out of the way and does the high-level jobs only he or she can do, and all’s right with the world.

Taking Care of Business

A self-sustaining team doesn’t happen by accident. A wise, experienced manager builds it from scratch or reworks an existing team to fit his or her needs, promptly replacing people whenever they move on or quit with others struck from the same mold. Each worker has a well-defined place that slots tightly in with the other team roles, with minor overlap. Unsurprisingly, these teams work best when composed of individuals who’ve worked together for years, or have quickly become comfortable with each other and their roles. Individuals with significant experience in their roles in other teams can also be brought together in a tight, self-policing team where everyone knows and does their jobs efficiently, even if they don’t know each other well—as long as they’re willing to put aside their egos. Of course, none of this precludes younger, less-experienced team members from functioning together this well, as long as all their roles are well defined—and the team clarifies and enforces a few other crucial factors.

Focal Factors 

I call the abovementioned factors “focal factors,” because like a lens, they focus the individual efforts, skills, and talents of your individual team members on the team’s goals. Some of these focal factors require the assent and participation of the team leader, including (1) the willingness to share leadership authority and delegate power widely, and (2) full transparency regarding team and organizational goals, so members can align their efforts to meet those goals at all levels. The leader should also be willing to coach team members as needed, and contribute help when asked. All these represent standard managerial duties in any case.

The team itself can police other focal factors, however. Voluntary social interaction can make a big difference toward tightening up the team, so social lubrication in the form of politeness, informal chats, and even extracurricular team activities (e.g. lunches and birthday parties) is a must. More importantly, a carefully maintained atmosphere of non-punitive innovation, mutual respect, and trust works wonders, especially with today’s smaller teams. 

Teams Without Borders 

Just because a team has become self-sustaining doesn’t mean it can or should be leaderless. All work groups inevitably have some layer of oversight, someone who takes care of administrative needs and general guidance. Mostly self-managing teams may become more common in the future, however, and management by exception remains a viable approach. In some cases, teams willing to police themselves, work as  tightly-knit groups, and make efforts to bind themselves even more cohesively can survive and even thrive under such conditions. Regardless of leadership style, I recommend all teams make an effort to become at least partly self-sustaining and autonomous, to both increase productivity and ensure survival when their leader is unavailable or busy elsewhere.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.