Six FAQs – X or Y?

Six FAQs – X or Y?

One of my most popular posts is “Six FAQs” – six questions I’m frequently asked about software and product development organisations. Let’s take a look at these six FAQs from the perspective of both Theory X and Theory Y, so as to illuminate how fundamentally different these two perspectives are on these topics.

Q1: How can we motivate our workers?

AX1: Use carrots and sticks. Incentives and punishments. Offer people money (raises and bonuses) and other financial rewards, and freebies (such as free lunches, foosball, sofas, working from home, and 20% time) for doing a good job. Bare-faced threats often undermine morale, but implicit threats, such as assignment to unattractive tasks or teams, lack of promotion, withheld raises, etc., can help keep people in line and focussed. We cannot just sit back and let idle people slack on the job.

AY1: You can’t. Oh, you can dream up incentive schemes, bonus packages, and so on, but there’s plenty of research – and experience – to show that such attempts at extrinsic motivation of knowledge workers only make folks’ performance on the job worse. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is very powerful – but that comes from the workers themselves. The only thing you can do is to work on creating an environment where maybe, just maybe, some folks feel a little better about themselves, their colleagues, and the common purpose. And hope – yes hope – that some intrinsic motivation emerges, here and there. You can’t change someone else’s intrinsic motivation – only they can do that.

Q2: How can we change the organisation’s culture?

AX2: Assign a team to the task of changing the culture. Increase the chances of success by hiring change management consultants to direct that team. Task the team with designing the culture you want to see and then run a project to implement that design. Try a pilot project in one area of the business to work out the wrinkles before committing the whole organisation. Offer incentives for folks who get with the programme. Lay heavy hints (sweetened with humour) that laggards and saboteurs will be let go. Make it clear that the status quo is not an option, and that there will be personal, unpleasant consequences for those who can’t or won’t change their behaviours.

AY2: You can’t. Culture is read-only. A manifestation and a reflection of the underlying, collective assumptions and beliefs of all the folks working in the organisation. To see any cultural changes, you have to work on – by which I mean work towards a wholesale replacement of – this underlying collective memeplex. And that involves working with peoples’ heads, and in particular, collective headspaces. You can’t change other people’s assumptions and beliefs – only they can do that.

Q3: How can we change the mindset of managers?

AX3: Your managers are the shock troops for change. Impress upon them their responsibilities in leading change, and in particular the change to their own behaviours and assumptions. Tie these changes into their individual remuneration packages through targets and KPIs. Provide extensive training in the new mindset, first for the managers and then cascading down to the front line employees. By having managers lead the change, they will develop the insights and skills necessary to bring everyone else along.

AY3: You can’t. Managers – anyone, really – will only change their mindset when they see how their present mindset is ineffective at getting their needs – and the needs of others – met. Change (of mindset) is a normative process – it emerges from direct personal experiences of e.g. the way the work works now – and the problems inherent therein. You can’t change someone else’s mindset – only they can do that.

Q4: How can we get teams to take responsibility?

AX4: Lead, manage, threaten, cajole, plead and bribe folks. Appeal to both their self-interest and loyalty to the company. Whatever means you choose, it’s the outcome that’s most important. People need to take responsibility. You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

AY4: You can’t. You can threaten, cajole, plead, bribe, appeal to folks’ better nature, etc. But again, research and experience both show these only serve to undermine folks’ goodwill and commitment. If you need folks to take more responsibility, maybe the best way is to just be honest about that, explain your need, and make a refusable request? What would you like the reason to be for them doing as you request? You can’t change someone else’s willingness to take responsibility – only they can do that.

Q5: How can we get managers to trust their teams?

AX5: This is a non-issue. Managers don’t need to trust their teams. Managers must issues clear instructions on what needs doing and the best way to do it. Teams that can’t be trusted to carry out those instructions must be sanctioned or restructured to weed out the weak and feckless.We must have compliance.

AY5: You can’t. Managers will only choose to trust their teams – or anyone else – if they find they have a need to do so. And that need only becomes obvious enough to spur action when managers come to understand just how trust helps them get some of their other needs met better. You can’t change someone else’s willingness to trust others – only they can do that.

Q6: How can we develop people’s competencies?

AX6: Firstly, training. Ensure people get regular training in areas of competency important to the business. Secondly, put people into stressful situations where they’ll have to step up and learn new competencies. Sink or swim. Thirdly, motivate them to become more competent (for which, see Q1).

AY6: You can’t. You can, however, create conditions where those folks who want to develop their own competencies can do so more easily. So the question then becomes, how can we get folks to want to develop their own competencies? Which is Q1 (see above). You can’t change someone else’s willingness to learn – only they can do that.

In a nutshell, the direct answer to all the above questions depends directly on the lens through which you see the world of work: the Theory X answers (AX1-6) are poles apart from the Theory-Y lens answers (AY1-6).

Which lens do you typically reach for when considering these questions?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Art And Science of Changing People Who Don’t Want to Change ~ Reut Schwartz-Hebron
Theories of Motivation – Think Different blog post

  1. Doesn’t this boil down to the general rule of our inability to control others and the need to influence them?

  2. You reference “The Art and Science Of Changing People Who Don’t Want To Change” as further reading, and then seem to give it a fairly harsh review on Amazon. Slightly confused as to whether the book is worth it or not.

    • Hi Chris, I too am slightly confused as to whether the book is worth it or not. Even having read it. On the plus side there’s the ideas and the experiences of the author. On the minus side there’s the writing style and the absence of clear guidance on how to apply her ideas. On balance I’d say, read it if you have the time and interest, but don’t expect too much.

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