Sunday, November 6, 2011

X Marks the Spot (or is it Y?)

Wally Bock, in his Three-Star Leadership blog the other day, posed the question as to what type of leader we wanted to be. Back in the day when I was learning about organizational behavior from the textbooks, this type of question was referred to as whether we believed in Theory X or Theory Y. 
Theory X
The underlying belief of Theory X is that the natural state of the worker is laziness, that they will do as little as possible, and they need to be motivated and incentivized to achieve the minimum of productivity. The leader’s role under this philosophy is to ride herd, closely monitor, and enforce working behavior through rewards and punishments. The leadership is oppositional to the workforce.
Theory Y
In the world of Theory Y, the worker’s objective is to actualize themselves, and the innate desire of the worker is to make a meaningful contribution to the world. They require guidance, encouragement, and resources to achieve this, and the leader’s role is to ensure they have what they need. The leadership is allied with the workforce.
Which One Are We?
When discussing these theories, there is usually an underlying (if not outright stated) premise that we must choose to be in one camp or the other. It is this assumption that I end up questioning. I just don’t think it is that simple.
It would be nice if it was.
Looking at my own leadership style, there is certainly a tendency to gravitate towards the Y side of the equation. However, having had the honor and the pleasure to supervise many different teams over the course of my career, ranging in size from 4 to 20, I know that I have not always evidenced that tendency.
Is this a flaw in my personality? Am I a “closet Theory Xist”?
Blame it on…
While I will not deny that I play a part in the drama, any interpersonal dynamic is a function of many forces - the leader, the direct report, the co-workers, the nature of the work, the culture of the company, and the influence of the local population among others.
I have led people who needed to be told what to do, and if they were not one could notice the personal phone time increase, the periods away from the desk socializing increase, and the work that needed to be done postponed or delayed.
I have led others who always had an idea of something new to do, who took initiative and developed innovations and improvements to existing processes, who got things done before they even needed to be asked, and then asked for more.
Nature of the Work?
I am all for self-actualization. I am all for achieving our true potential. I am all for realizing our gifts and talents. I am all for you achieving these, and all for me achieving these.
Yet I have the sneaking suspicion that if you and I spent our entire day washing dishes, or cleaning toilets, or picking up garbage, etc., we would not go home at night feeling like we were achieving those lofty ends (we might be achieving other lofty ends, such as feeding our families!).
I am not knocking the people who do these things day in and day out, nor am I demeaning the importance of the activities. They need to be done. We hear stories of people who are able to work these activities into their “personal mission”. But there probably is a shortage of those naturals vs. the jobs available. There are a lot of waiters and waitresses in the world who are marking time on their way to a big break in the theater.
Company Culture?
The same can be said for the company culture. I have worked in very hierarchical organizations and in very “flat” ones – believe me there is a difference. People are less likely to listen to peers, or those in other departments no matter the rank, in a strong hierarchical organization. They are waiting to hear from their leader, the only voice that counts (other than the leader’s leader!). If the leader doesn’t throw their weight around from time to time they begin to lose respect for them, merely out of principle.
Conversely, in flat organizations there is much more listening, interacting, and questioning of each other. Decisions are often made based on common and acknowledged criteria, usually tacit. People trying to throw their weight in this environment lose respect quickly.

Leadership is a complex function involving many elements. In executing this function we therefore need to make judgments about the situation, and we need to be flexible in our approach. We cannot possess only a hammer and treat every leadership situation like a nail, we need saws, sanders, screwdrivers, c-clamps, and drills in our toolbox as well.
And we need to know how to use them.

What is your experience with leaders who have had a “robust” style versus ones who have not?
What elements are primary in your organization?

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  1. Having worked in a few different companies, I've generally found that the most productive teams are those that are hybrid between X and Y. Where the leader sets the guidelines for the projects and the teams figure out how to make the projects happen. The leader ends up herding while allowing enough innovation to occur within the team.

  2. Maddie,

    That is a great example of maintaining a flexible approach. Thanks!