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Are You Ready To Lead Self-leaders in Agile Teams?

This article, written by Johanna Gillberg and me, Katarina Chowra, was originally published in Computer Sweden in Swedish. Thanks to Bo Rex who translated this article, you can read the English version here below: 

Leading an agile team places completely different demands on managers than leading traditional organizations. Stop controlling and micromanage your employees, let them instead develop through their mistakes, urges Johanna Gillberg and Katarina Chowra.

Being a leader for self-leaders and agile teams is far from suitable for all managers. It is not a given that a good traditional manager will be a good leader in the emerging economy that requires agility combined with trust rather than stability and control for which traditional management is developed. The Corona crisis has made many organizations aware that the work works excellently even from home, without managers’ control. 

Managers who are skilled in coaching their employees to reach their full potential have an opportunity to grow into the new leadership roles needed in agile and self-leading organizations. The leader’s role in agile and self-governing organizations is not to evaluate employees and their work and check that it gets done. The leader’s role is to support and coach the teams to achieve their goals, maintain a clear vision, and create the best possible conditions to accelerate learning. 

In other words, to promote a learning and development oriented culture.

The team sets their own goals to follow up on their results and learning to ensure that they achieve the organization’s overall objectives. Learning goals can be followed up on with, for example, the number of completed experiments, the number of reflection opportunities in the team, the number of knowledge-gathering activities, etc.

This self-learning and the mandate to act on the insights that create the real agility and speed of an agile organization.

The higher the ability of a team to learn and adapt, the higher the agility. The employee’s self-leadership grows through an inner drive that derives from trust and personal engagement. Here, leaders of a self-leader have an essential role. The employee’s self-leadership is strengthened if the challenges are large enough to develop self-efficacy, the ability to believe that you can handle any challenge that comes your way, but not too large so that they create stress symptoms.

A traditional manager sees employees’ value in their expertise, where they know more than others, and does not encourage employees to work in areas they do not master. That manager sees mistakes as failures and therefore creates a culture where you avoid making mistakes.

On the other hand, a leader focusing on achieving learning goals that lead to the team’s purpose, sees learning as a means of accelerating the team’s development, is positive about change, and welcomes new challenges. Such a leader sees small mistakes as a way for the team to learn faster and can build groups with much higher innovation abilities and adaptability. 

If employees are afraid of making mistakes, it blocks creativity and agility. In an agile, innovative culture, employees are encouraged to think big, test fast, make small mistakes, learn quickly to not repeat the same mistakes, and find the best solutions.

To lead self-leaders, you need to be a self-leader and understand what it means to make that inner journey, to be able to guide others. Many managers already have that ability, and for them, autonomous and agile work will be welcome. 

For others, it can be difficult, to let go of their habitual managerial identity and control, to instead have confidence in the employees’ ability to manage their work. It is a change that requires self-insight and training. A good start is to self-reflect and sense if the new leadership is something you aspire to and if it would suit you? That is far from obvious.

Examples of behaviors leaders have that either block or drive self leadership and agility.

A manager who focuses on managing and controlling employees can block agility completely and prevent self-leadership from growing. For the introduction of agile working methods to generate real agility in the organization, it is necessary for the teams to follow up on their results and the customers’ response, to act and adjust quickly. 

Questions you must ask yourself. Are you as a leader aware of which of your behaviors that are blocking or accelerating the transformation towards agility and self-leadership? Are you as a manager suitable to lead self-leaders in agile teams?

Johanna Gillberg, MSc. Innovation Leader and Digital Business Development Manager, Board Member Society of Organizational Learning (SoL)

Katarina Chowra, MSc. Senior Sustainability and Innovation Coach, Maplebloom