Hidden Hierarchy In A Self-Managed Team

By Tom Foster originally published on management skills blog

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested in the context. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work.
At Buurtzorg, nurses are grouped in teams of 10-12. Laloux describes, “They deal with all the usual management tasks that arise in every team context: they set direction and priorities, analyze problems, make plans, evaluate people’s performance and make the occasional tough decisions. Instead of placing these tasks on one single person—the boss—team members distribute these management tasks among themselves.”

The description is agreeable and I assume that Laloux is describing the phenomenon accurately. Each nursing team is dubbed self-organizing and self-managing, without hierarchy. In my post Teal and Theory of Constraints, “little surprise that a team of a dozen nurses could solve most problems and make most decisions related to intake, planning, scheduling and administration.”

It is highly likely that in a pool of skilled nurses there would be a number of them with S-II capability (capable of effectively completing task assignments and projects 3-12 months in timespan). My suspicion is there is plenty of leadership talent in the team.

Laloux validates my suspicions. “the idea is not to make all nurses on a team equal. Whatever the topic, some nurses will naturally have a larger contribution to make or more say, based on their expertise, interest, or willingness to step in.” My suspicions say the difference can be measured in timespan and directly relates to capability.

Laloux continues, “In any field, some nurses will naturally have more to offer than others. Some nurses will build up reputations and influence even well beyond their team and are consulted by nurses from across the country on certain topics of expertise.”

My observation is that leadership is NOT a mandated phenomenon, but an observed phenomenon. Give any group of people a problem to solve and a leader will emerge, in Laloux’s words, “naturally.”

I believe that natural emergence is consistent with capability measured in timespan. Leadership is an observed phenomenon.

I am reminded (thanks to Bruce Peters) that “the concept of Teal is not to be structure-less or for that matter leader-less.” My thoughts conclude there is plenty of leadership on display AND it is occurring in a natural hierarchy. Laloux would describe this as a hierarchy of “recognition, influence, and skill.”

I would press and call this a hierarchy based on capability, and this capability drives both context setting and ultimately accountability.

Elliott would describe it as an accountability hierarchy. Note that all of these descriptions of hierarchy are absent the word power.

I assume that in many cases power and hierarchy are named hand in hand. Laloux has gently teased them apart so that we can see the difference. But now we have to deal with another “A” word. With accountability goes authority. So how do we address an understanding of authority without the menacing connotation of power-mongering? I suppose that is next?

Republished with permission of the author.

Featured Image added by Enlivening Edge and created by A Peach on Flickr

Block quoting added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.

There is a worthwhile comment on the original article.

  1. The big issue with Reinventing organising is that those reading and implement “self organisations “ structures don’t understand Spiral Dynamics and the legal structures of organisations

    The legal structure has the principle agent problem there for hierarchies are naturally imbedded. Until decision making, risk and surplus is shared and a new legal agreement exist we will always have dominate hierarchies.

    The world is made up of natural hierarchies we are natural hierarchies! They are all around us.

    Also there is a lack of understanding of Spiral dynamics in second tier SD there are natural hierarchies. The biological levels of organization of living things arranged from the simplest to most complexes are: organelle, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, communities, ecosystem, and biosp.

    Those who are anti hierarchies are stuck in green/postmodernism first tier and struggle to understand the difference in hierarchies.

    Like many when the book RO came out I thought it was a good step forward, however once you take a good systems look at the organisations and the legal structure and SD you see that it’s a very different picture. May people are just juming on the band wagon to make money When people are hood winked about something and find out they have been miss lead there is often a back lash ie Brexit!

  2. What if the difference that makes a difference is between formal authority (i.e. a title in an organizational hierarchy with formal responsibilities, formal accountabilities, formal power and so on) and “natural” authority (i.e. a dynamically changing function of responsibility, influence (equals power/authority, but is not formally assigned or in any ways a right that one possesses), and so on.) “Natural” authority is of course context dependent. My authority or role in a room depends on who else is there with what competency, energy, experience, mindset etc.
    In my opinion there is power everywhere but the question is how it is taken and given and used.
    That is why it might serve us better to use the phrases distributed authority or distributed power, than discussing if there are hierarchies or not. Cooperation and value creation exist because of differences in skill levels, competence, capacity for long or short term thinking, etc. Differences should be valued and not hidden. But that does not mean that formally assigning people to certain boxes or fixed roles is necessary.

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