It’s hard to argue with the principles of autonomous teams. Who wouldn’t want their people to be more responsible and involved in the work they do? But in practice, only a small percentage of companies actually make the shift and some of them even end up going back to a hierarchical structure. Why is it so hard to make autonomy work?
On this episode, Irene Sinteur and I talk about the science of empowerment, the role of power in team collaboration and why working in self-steering teams doesn’t come natural to us. If you want more actionable tips on how to create better meetings, check out this article that Irene and I released together with this episode.
Irene is a leading expert in empowerment, autonomy and power dynamics in organizations. In 2018, she completed her PhD research on the role of power in autonomous groups. Irene and I are both deeply inspired by the work of the Dutch social psychologist Mauk Mulder (1922-2016), who was a great friend and mentor of mine.
Mauk is also the person who brought us together. Years ago, he mentioned Irene’s research to me and suggested that I really had to get in touch with her. Only recently, I rediscovered the note with Irene’s name on it, reached out to her via LinkedIn - and here we are recording an episode and writing blogs together.
“If you want to give people authority you have to let go of authority yourself. You have to start trusting people that they will do the right thing.”
0:40 – What Irene realized about her former colleagues in IT when she started studying sociology
3:41 – How to help dominant and non-dominant team members listen to each other
7:46 – The difference between structural and psychological empowerment
9:51 – The impact of power on team collaboration
13:48 – Why leaders think twice about implementing autonomous groups
16:38 – “The only way to empower people is to really give them power”
20:45 – Why working in autonomous teams doesn’t come natural to us
23:37 – Explaining the hype
24:44 – The proven benefits of self-steering teams
25:46 – Effectiveness vs. efficiency
27:11 – Why more responsibility doesn’t increase stress in autonomous teams
28:37 – Is autonomy an option for every organization?
30:01 – How the transformation usually starts
34:43 – For leaders, autonomy begins with letting go
37:34 – How to initiate a discussion about creating autonomous groups with your manager
44:08 – Decision-making in autonomous teams: seeking consent rather than consensus
45:55 – The check-in and other techniques to create an atmosphere of openness in meetings
50:00 – How to handle unproductive power differences in autonomous teams
52:31 – Teaching children about power
Links to people, books and resources mentioned in this episode:
- A link to Irene’s PhD paper ‘Autonomous Groups Between Power and Empowerment’ (via Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).
- Former nuclear submarine commander David Marquet talks about how to turn followers into leaders - on the Coaching for Leaders podcast.
- The website of the late social psychology professor Mauk Mulder, a good friend of mine who profoundly influenced my thinking about power. His website is in Dutch; go to Google Scholar for his papers and articles in English.
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To relive the episode, here are the key quotes from Irene Sinteur:
“You won’t be able to reach the situation of autonomy, if you ignore the role of power.”
“You can give people the feeling that they are in control of their work, but this is not a sustainable way to empower people. It won’t last through a crisis.”
“The fact that there is a manager means the manager is responsible and the others are not.”
“If you are going to work somewhere and you have a manager, you instantly know what’s expected from you: you have to follow your manager.”
“We don’t grow up to be members of autonomous groups: that’s something we have to learn.”
“If you implement autonomous teams, your organizational members will be more satisfied and more committed and there will be less stress and less turnover.”
“One person can take a decision very quickly. If you have to make a decision with a group of people and you want to involve everyone’s opinion, it takes more time. But then the decision will probably be better.”
“The ones who are in control have to let go, otherwise nobody is going to respond. Nobody is going to feel responsible if someone else is still in charge.”
“Companies that choose for autonomous groups have people in power who really have the courage to look at the situation differently, who are interested in different perspectives, who want to learn something.”
“Power is always there, everywhere, also in autonomous teams.”