Self-Managed Teams in a Work-from-Home Future

  • Leaders can build trust and realize better results by fostering a culture of self-management
  • Far from the laissez-fare approach it may sound like, self-managed teams rely on leader involvement for success

Well over a year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that remote work arrangements for many organizations are here to stay. Many leaders are still stressed as they try to adapt to the reality of leading team members who may no longer be in the office on a regular basis.

Team members are undoubtedly stressed as well and mutual trust is often degraded or not even there. How many leaders are watching the ‘magic status light,’ chafing when it turns yellow and wondering what their employee is really doing? How many employees are still hearing the laptop email alert at 9 p.m. and finding themselves drawn to the screen?

If teams are going to thrive in this new environment, leaders need to adapt. So, what to do? In his recently published book, Own Your Job, retired professor and consultant Dr. Michael Colburn proposes a seemingly radical approach that really isn’t so radical: Leaders can build stronger teams and deliver better organizational results by fostering a culture of self-management.

They do this by actually giving their employees power to craft their own professional goals and expected results for their jobs.[i]

Often the most significant hurdle leaders need to overcome is a misperception that self-managed employees are simply ‘running rogue’ with no interaction or engagement with their boss. According to Dr. Colburn, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, self-managed employees rely on frequent interaction with and feedback from their boss.

By giving team members power, leaders can actually help instill the, “…ability and the will to act in the best interest of the organization in such a way that intrinsic motivation replaces any external consequences imposed to reward or punish behavior.”[ii]

What boss doesn’t want that kind of employee engagement?

Dr. John Kotter and others have praised the virtues of employees ‘managing up’ and better supporting their bosses by understanding their needs and keeping them informed.[iii] Dr. Colburn reinforces the reciprocal aspects of managing up by stressing the need for leader support in order to ensure success. Relying on years of successful implementation in organizations and MBA classrooms, Dr. Colburn does this by offering a step-by-step process that encourages employees to:

  • discover their talents, strengths and passions
  • determine the needs and expectations of their key stakeholder relationships
  • build a performance agreement with a self-generated mission statement, key results for their position, commitment statement to achieve each of those results along with goals and performance measures to ensure key result achievement

The critical leader responsibility in this process is to mutually review and agree to what the employee has generated, thus making it a true performance agreement. Also key is that the leader agrees to regular employee-led meetings to review progress, set priorities and share feedback.[iv] It is only through this constant communication that self-managed employees can truly achieve their objectives.

In their well-known self-determination theory, renowned psychologists Dr. Edward Deci and Dr. Richard Ryan discovered that people are motivated and grow when they have three things:

Autonomy – choice in their own goals

Competence – skills needed for success and achieving their goals

Relatedness – sense of belonging and connectedness to a greater purpose[v].

Self-management capitalizes on this theory by showing leaders a way to provide all three, giving team members a voice in establishing their goals, alignment of their strengths to those goals and knowledge that what they’re doing supports their boss and the organization’s mission.

Leaders often won’t be able to visually see what their teams are doing as they work from home or other remote locations. Reassuringly, there is a tried-and-true way to build trust and know that what they’re doing is in the best interests of the organization…

…no matter what color the ‘magic status light’ is.


[i]  Colburn, M. (2019). Own Your Job - Five Tools for Self-Management and Accountability in the Workplace. CEFG Press.

[ii] (Colburn, 2)

[iv] (Colburn, 127)

[v] Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2018). Self-Determination Theory. Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. Guildford Press.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.