AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Top 10 Team Obstacles


Copyright 1992 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.

Overcoming the Top 10 Obstacles to Self-Directed Teams:

Mules, Mushrooms, and Puppy Dog Tails

(A version of this was published in the Journal for Quality and Participation)

Click here if you want to review the Obstacles Survey (shown at the end of this article) before reading the results.

Obstacles Stuart Miles

Courtesy Stuart Miles,

Self-directed work teams are a powerful organizational strategy for improving quality, productivity, and employee satisfaction. However, there are significant barriers to overcome. One event really brought this into focus. Several years ago at an AQP conference, David Hanna spoke about his experience at Proctor and Gamble. P&G has been involved with socio-technical systems and self-directed teams for roughly four decades now, having repeatedly proven the benefits of team-based organizations. Yet, according to Hanna,only half of P&G’s plants were team-based. If the benefits are as huge as their own research indicates, why aren’t all P&G’s plants converted?If America is struggling with global competition, why are executives often the last to discover the power of teams?

In order to understand this phenomenon, Axis conducted an Obstacles Survey,polling roughly 200 people across industries. Let us share with you what we discovered are the top ten obstacles to implementing self-directed teams and what we think should be done to overcome them.

The Survey Process and Results

During the first quarter of 1992, AXIS conducted a survey of those interested in or currently implementing self-directed teams to discover their perceptions of the greatest obstacles. We administered a paper-and-pencil survey with21 items which allowed space for written responses. Respondents were to identify the top ten obstacles and then rate them from 1-10 with 10 being the biggest obstacle.

We entered scores for each responding organization (combining results where more than one survey was returned from an organization). The chart below shows the weighted average score for each industry group. The largest theoretical score is 50 (five industry groups X maximum score of 10).

Top 10 Obstacle Statements

16. Employees mistrust management motives

1. Team members unclear what is expected

7. Managers resist the change

6. First line supervisors resist the change

2. First line supervisors unclear what is expected

4. Certain groups feel they will lose status

15. Managers don’t demonstrate participative skills

5. Employees resist the change

3. Managers are unclear what is expected

19. Insufficient top management commitment

17. Insufficient time

There are interesting differences between industries. For instance the biggest obstacle for all industries except services was “Employees mistrust management’s motives.” The big issue for services was “Managers resist the change.” It seems that self-directed teams make everyone nervous.

What the Data Mean ­ Five Themes

When we analyze the top 10 obstacles, five themes emerge. First, employees mistrust management’s motives (#16). Second, we find a lack of clarity of what is expected (# 1, #2, #3). Third is resistance (#7, # 6, # 4, #5). The fourth theme seems to be management’s lack of participative skills (#15)and fifth, the lack of top management commitment (#19).

Obviously, these are intimately intertwined. If managers lack participative skills, employee trust tends to decline. If people don’t know what is expected(or if they understand what is expected and feel they will lose something of significant value), they tend to resist. If managers are not inclined toward participation, they will lack commitment.

Let’s explore how to mitigate these obstacles.

Lack of Trust  — ­ The Canine Theory of Management

Courtesy photostock,

Courtesy photostock,

You may not be aware of it, but traditional organizations are based on the Canine Theory of Management ­ acting as if employees were like puppies. Managing a staff of dogs would be easy. They’re delighted to go wherever you want to go and don’t care if you change directions constantly. They want desperately to please and if scolded, they take the issue to heart but never hold the reprimand against you. They aren’t even resentful ifyou ignore them for hours, leaping to eager attention the moment you appear.

Unfortunately, most employees are not as forgiving as our furry four-footed friends. Employees want to influence their direction, want constancy of purpose (as Deming would say), want tactful treatment, want to be recognized for their accomplishments. Oh, and they won’t work all day for Kibbles and Bits.

The SPCA should have cited most organizations for inhumane treatment long ago.

Employees may mistrust management’s motives for a variety of reasons.They may interpret self-direction as asking them to do more for nothing or they may have heard that self-directed organizations require fewer people and fear layoffs. In some organizations, management and employees have forged an adversarial relationship, often fostered by management capriciousness.If open communication has only been a pipe dream, overcoming this mistrust can take time.

So what do you do if your organization has operated on the Canine Theory of Management? Here are some suggestions.

· If you have the luxury of moving slowly, work on your managers’ coaching skills before talking about self-direction. If managers are highly participative, trust increases and the change to self-direction is much less traumatic.

· If you need to press forward, two tactics will help. Creating and communicating a clear, direct statement of intent, a statement of why you are implementing teams, will ensure consistent communication. You should tie this to an open discussion of policies which relate to employees’ biggest worries (for instance, policies around layoffs, compensation, etc.).

If mistrust has been a problem, employees will still be skeptical, of course. The best way to overcome this skepticism is to take employees onsite visits to other organizations who have successfully implemented teams. There they can talk to other employees and supervisors who thought this was just another program but now are convinced. Employees are more likely to find credible those in other organizations since they have no vested interest in obscuring the truth.

Lack of Clear Expectations ­ — The Mushroom School of Management

Courtesy YaiSirichai,

Courtesy YaiSirichai,

You are probably more familiar with the Mushroom School of Management:keep them in the dark and feed them… ­ how shall we say… ­ compost. This lack of clear expectations my come from a variety of sources. No matter how many books people read, they remain vague on the details of how self-direction actually works. To make matters worse, there is no prototypical self-directed team because every organization must adapt the concept to their special needs. Some think self-directed means anarchy. Most often, however, the lack of clarity stems from not specifying the responsibilities teams will assume.

In many organizations, managers are reluctant to specify what powers they want the teams to assume since the act of identifying the new responsibilities seems autocratic. We consulted with one Fortune 100 company which, after over five years in self-directed teams, had still not defined the responsibilities of the teams.

Unfortunately, since most employees have been indoctrinated into the Mushroom School of Management, they view the ambiguity not as an empowering opportunity but rather as unlimited risk. Employees fear if you keep them in the dark about rules of the game, you can change them at whim. “Oh,I didn’t mean you could do that.” Organizations which take this approach may discover that people interpret empowerment to be whatever they want it to mean, resulting in managers keeping the power they want and employees alternately seizing the powers they want and then getting stomped on by their managers.

Instead, we recommend the following:

· Develop a detailed hand-off list which specifies short- and long-range responsibilities the teams can assume. Develop this list with representation from all levels of the organization. Let the teams select the hand-offs they want to assume first from the short-range options and coach them to ensure success.

· Develop a long-range plan which makes clear to all how long this process will probably take and what support will be provided along the way.

· The biggest limiting factor will be everyone’s existing biases about what is possible. Managers, in particular, tend to grossly underestimate what employees can do. Consequently, it is helpful to educate all levels of the organization about the possibilities. Take your employees on site visits to organizations which are further along than you and share anecdotes,articles, and examples which will stretch their imaginations about how employees can participate in areas which used to be sanctuaries of management.

· The greatest ambiguity is in the role of management. Since they are now in support of teams, not vice versa, their role and tasks change as the teams mature. It is not possible to show them a picture of what their role will be. All you can do is educate them on the skills that will make them successful (such as coaching, negotiating, etc.) and help them discover what their teams need from them.

Few managers ever ask their employees, “How can I help you to be more productive?” You need to establish structured methods for this interchange to occur (such as upward appraisal surveys and “open appraisal”discussions). You can also expose the managers to those in other organizations so they can see examples of role redefinition. While some get reassigned or promoted because their function is no longer needed, many managers become linebackers for their teams, breaking down barriers which prevent them from succeeding. Some become sales reps for the team, maintaining customer contact and generating more “business” for the team.

Resistance ­ — The Mule Packers Theory of Management

Ever gone backpacking with a mule? One soon discovers that, while mules initially seem willing, if their legs are tired or their pack heavy, you only get where you want to go if it is in their best interest to go there too. Such is the case with employees. While they are willing to go along on the easy trails, when the going gets tough it sure helps if their interests are aligned with the organization’s.

People at all levels of the organization may resist for a number of reasons. They may not see a need to disrupt the status quo, or they may fear they will not be able to succeed in the new environment. They may be unclear what is expected. Some groups, especially supervisors and professionals such as engineers, will resist because their self-image has become intertwined with the power and special knowledge they have. Letting go can be a tough transition.

Here are some useful tips:

· Develop a shared vision and ennobling mission for the organization. Marvin Weisbord’s search conferences provide a useful model for how to get an entire organization participating in this process.

· Sell the problem more than the solution. Make sure all employees understand the business necessity for implementing teams. It’s no accident that most organizations who win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award were motivated by crisis.

· Develop and communicate a statement of intent ­ why you are implementing teams. (See comments under Lack of Trust.)

· If one of your reasons for implementing teams is to down-size,do so first. Then bring the remaining people together to examine how self-directed teams can help them be successful with fewer people.

· Let everyone participate in refining their new roles. Help managers,union officials, and teams alike pick a preferred future, to build their new roles around their interests as well as the needs of the organization.

· Addressing fears of layoffs can be straight-forward, but dealing with certain groups who feel they may lose status is often more difficult.Help those who fear loss of status to see how, in this new team environment,their old roles and practices will be dysfunctional.

· Plan to share with everyone the financial gains teams will bring.Institute team-based compensation systems such as recognition awards, gainsharing, and the like.

Lack of Participative Skills — ­ The I-Say-JumpSchool of Management

The difference between how managers view themselves and how they are viewed by their employees is amazing. You can listen to managers talking about their approach to management and think, “Boy, these folks are really sharp.” Then chat with their employees and discover Dr. Jeckyl’s other side. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Few managers want to be autocratic. Most can’t imagine doing work any other way. They view certain tasks such as budgeting, purchasing, and appraisals as their responsibility and so they keep doing them. In fact, most managers think they are participative and few employees have the guts to tell them otherwise.

Perhaps it is just human nature to assume, “I’m okay, so it must be you they’re talking about.” In order to get managers to change,you must persistently increase the intensity of feedback they receive until they have a felt need to change. These approaches should help.

· Begin by providing managers training on participative skills.It is critical that this training revolve around specific, tough situations.Managers understand the theoretical concepts; it is often in their application that Mr. Hyde emerges. For instance, I was recently teaching managers how to do management by walking around (MBWA). One principle I presented is not to do anything which could be interpreted as spying or tattling. All the managers nodded, obviously bored to tears. Then I gave them a specific situation and asked how it should be handled. “Go tell the supervisor,” was the response. Only when we got into a big argument about this situation did any learning occur.

· There is only so much you can accomplish in the classroom. You need to do your own MBWA. For a while, you may need to be a conduit for feedback until the employees trust their managers enough to tell them face-to-face.Observe the managers as they interact with employees and provide private feedback. Be available to consult with them.

· Implement official, structured ways for managers to get feedback.These may include upward appraisal surveys, feedback meetings, etc. You should treat the data as private and confidential initially, but eventually you may need to make the overall results public for those who don’t or won’t”get it.”

Lack of Management Commitment ­ — The Ostrich School of Management

If, when danger approaches, you stick your head in the sand, you’re likely to get your butt kicked. The only reason ostriches don’t have this problem is they have long legs. I guess a lot of executives enjoy the same benefit since position in the organization has been linked to height. The problem is our competition is getting taller.

Executives may lack commitment for many reasons. Since most executives came up through traditional ranks, self-direction can sound like some bizarre social experiment. They may not be familiar with self-directed teams and their effectiveness. They may have their focus elsewhere: fending off regulators,managing Wall Street, planning strategy. Oddly, many avoid dictating solutions,preferring to wait for good ideas to bubble up from the mid-managers. Many simply don’t feel enough corporate pain to institute what they view as drastic measures.

Larry Miller, the author of American Spirit and other great books, speaks of a culture curve. He postulates that the culture of an organization or society begins to wane before its economic curve. What I call the blind spot is the area where the culture has begun to fall before the financial health deteriorates. Here, executives are thinking, “Don’t mess with success.” They lay the foundation for the ultimate and precipitous decline of their organizations if they ignore the cultural side of their business. These are the executives with the long legs who think their organization doesn’t need radical change, their performance will sustain them, their employees aren’t ready to share responsibility for running the business.

· In an ideal world, a push for self-direction would come from the top. In the real world, the initiative often comes in an isolated pocket of the organization. If this is your situation, gather data on performance improvements and the return-on-investment of teams. That usually gets the executives’ attention.

· Educate people at all levels of the organization about the power of self-directed teams. In particular, make sure that they understand that self-directed teams are not a new management fad. The research upon which they are based has been out since World War II. Since management as a discipline has only been around for about 100 years, that means the effectiveness of self-directed teams has been repeatedly demonstrated for almost half of that tenure. How many management fads can claim that?

· Introduce managers and executives to the new competitive standards.America thrived after WWII based on productivity ­ our ability to produce the largest number of widgets for the lowest cost. However, now the competitive standards have changed. The new competitive standards ­ which self-directed teams can help you achieve ­ are quality, variety, convenience, customization,and timeliness. When people understand the game has changed, they are often willing to play by new rules.

 Obstacles Survey

[This is the survey we used to gather the data on implementation obstacles.FYI. Feel free to use this survey in your organization. Since we have completed the research, please don’t send your results to us for including in the study.]


AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc. is gathering data on obstacles organizations encounter when implementing or considering self-directed work team. Self-directed teams (SDWTs) are natural work groups which have assumed most if not all the responsibility of a traditional supervisor. They are also referred toas self-managed or semi-autonomous teams.

Organizational Data:

Industry Represented (Check one)



Health care


Government &Education


Other ____________________

Do you currently have self-directed teams in your organization? n Yesn No

If yes, in what year did you begin implementing them? _______________

What work groups have been affected (i.e., manufacturing, customer service,sales, etc.)

How many people in your organization are currently part of a SDWT? _____________

In three years, how many people do you expect will be part of SDWTs?_____________

Twenty-One Common Obstacles

Organizations encounter a number of common obstacles when implementing teams.

1) Please review the following list, add any obstacles you see missing,and select the top ten for your organization by placing a check in the second column.

2) Then rank order the top ten from 1-10, using each number only once10 = the biggest obstacle; 1 = the smallest of the ten.


Top 10 (check)

(top 10 only)

 Expectations and roles unclear1. Team members unclear what is expected2. First line supervisors unclear what is expected3. Managers unclear what is expected
 Resistance4. Certain groups feel they will lose status5. Employees resist the change6. First line supervisors resist the change7. Managers resist the change8. Other groups in the organization resist the change

9. External customers resist the change

10. Vendors resist the change

 Organizational need11. Lack of clear need to make the change12. Type of work does not lend itself to teams
 Inconsistencies13. Work groups have different, conflicting goals14. Organizational systems are inconsistent with teams15. Managers don’t demonstrate participative skills16. Employees mistrust management and their motives
 Lack of resources17. Insufficient time18. Insufficient money to support the effort19. Insufficient top management commitment20. Insufficient training resources21. Insufficient coaching (non-training assistance)

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