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Happiness and Self Organizing Teams

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Does happiness affect our results - both positive and negative - with self organizing teams?  Mark Levison shares research in psychology that shows that choice and control are interchangeable.  Specifically, in It's All About Control:

Having power over others and having choices in your own life share a critical foundation: control, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The paper finds that people are willing to trade one source of control for the other. For example, if people lack power, they clamor for choice, and if they have an abundance of choice they don’t strive as much for power.
“People instinctively prefer high to low power positions,” says M. Ena Inesi of London Business School. “Similarly, it feels good when you have choice, and it doesn’t feel good when choice is taken away.” Inesi and her coauthors suspected that the need for personal control might be the factor these two seemingly independent processes have in common. Power is control over what other people do; choice is control over your own outcomes.

So, if people are equally satisfied with control and choice, can this be (part of) what is behind the excitement around self organizing teams?  And if having more choice makes people happier, does this affect their productivity?  Does the fact that they no longer strive as much for power enable them to more easily reach what is good for the team and to acheive shared ownership of the results?

On the other hand, a typical tranistion to self organizing teams leaves middle management unhappy.  A common explanation behind this is that they are insecure and don't know where their new place is in the agile world.  Joe Little recently wrote:

But often the middle managers feel left out. Yes, they see benefits here and there, but often not for themselves. They should actually see benefits for themselves, but no one shows them how to realize those benefits. We just assume they will naturally, without any explanation, understand and adapt to, the change (to Scrum).
But, a common feeling among the middle managers is: 'Who moved my cheese?' (If you know that book.) Meaning: Before, I knew how to manage and be successful and show progress. Now, with Scrum, they moved all my levers. And how do I function successfully?

In light of the idea that choice and control are interchangable, can it be that the loss of control for middle management is the problem?  Could it be that they net out with a loss, as they lose control but are not given any more choice?  Is this a perception that can be cleared up, or is it a reality?  If so, what are the choices that are there to offset the loss of control? Please share your experiences.

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Community comments

  • Thanks Amr

    by Mark Levison,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I will be publishing irregular updates with more links on areas of aspects of neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology and agile/lean software development. In addition I'm writing a series of papers leading towards a mini-book on the subject.


  • Re: Thanks Amr

    by Roman Smirak,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks a lot for this article! Finally we try to learn / reuse experiences from psychology. Surprise, even IT geeks are humans ;-)

    I fully support conclusions here except that the happiness comes slowly: first time we approach people with the idea of more freedom and responsibility, it seems to them actually less convenient. "Too many open choices" syndrome, or regular conflicts are often making people unhappy. It takes time to learn new stuff: how to cooperate, how to solve conflicts, how to respect each other. It goes back to psychology again. It follows the same phenomena we can observe in our society: I come from Czech Rep. ie. former totalitarian country. After more than 20 years of freedom many people still didn't get the point about democracy and call it worse then before. I noticed similar process in teams transforming towards Agile / Lean.


  • Chicken and Egg

    by Jeff Santini,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I think that happiness does not derive from choice, but from the choices made. At least within self-organizing teams. Assuming we all want to be successful in our endeavors, it is the lack of choice that removes successful strategies from our toolbox and reduces our chance of success. So by increases the freedom of choice you increase the chance of a team's success and thereby increase the chance of happiness. If the team had complete control of their direction but failed miserably at their goal, I am not sure how much happiness could be found within the team.

    To stare at a supermarket shelf and see a choice of 1 million brands of cookies does not bring me happiness. But to open a box of excellent cookies and eat them does.

  • How to make things better for middle management

    by Amr Elssamadisy,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    There was an assumption in this article, that being happy actually makes you more productive. That may be true. Assuming it is desirable, then it is a good thing that many people are satisfied by having more choice. What grabs my attention personally, is the negative side of adopting agile methods for middle management - loss of control without a balance more choice. It looks like, emotionally at least, they have a net loss.

    So what can we do about it? Do we just get rid of middle management? Somehow that is unsatisfying. So can we perhaps replace their control with more choice? I think we can if we are aware that something must replace the lost control.

    Here is one possibility - middle managers become members of their own self org team of middle managers that report up together. Collectively, they are now given more control (remember, they had little control from above and were given marching orders). So - could self organizing teams at each level of the hierarchy address this deficiency?

  • Re: How to make things better for middle management

    by Jeff Santini,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    You have to being doing something valuable to the organization. The name middle manager implies questionable value(at least to my mind). What is the value they are adding? If they can't get hands on, then it may be fairly satisfying to get rid of them.

  • Re: Thanks Amr

    by suba bose,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks, great article, looking forward to more on similar stuff...

    Ellen Langer (, perhaps, was the first to establish a link between control and, well, longevity. And then 'choice' is not always associated with happiness, think of Sophie's Choice. Sheena Iyenger's book is wonderful in this aspect of choice.

    I once covered this aspect of agile and happiness, though from a slightly different angle

    thanks, subashish

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