Are you Theory X or Theory Y?

It’s not (ONLY) about Trust by David Pilbeam MA

Not sure that you trust your people to give their best every day when they are working remotely and you can’t see what they are up to? You are not alone. The issue of trust has long been cited in research as one of the principle reasons leaders do not favour home or remote working for their team members. This mistrust is often routed in the leader’s lack of confidence in a performers ability to do the job well and a suspicion that people will abuse their homeworking arrangement somehow. Leadership researcher Jennifer Garvey-Berger calls this a ‘mind trap’[1] and suggests that rather than seeking control leadership ‘requires the counterintuitive move of letting go of control in order to focus on creating the conditions for good things to happen – often with better outcomes than we could ever have imagined.’

Douglas McGregor[2] introduced us all to the idea that leaders tend to naturally favour Theory X or Theory Y 60 years ago. One leader we talked to this week reminded us of its relevance for the present climate. McGregor suggested that leaders favouring Theory X see people as motivated to avoid work when left to their own devices, while those who have a preference for Theory Y are inclined to see people as naturally highly motivated to perform their work. With a preference for Theory Y a leader is more inclined to give trust while the mindset of a leader coming from Theory X might be that trust must be hard earned. The leader in question wanted to make clear to us that more leaders in his sector still had a preference for Theory X than you might imagine and it was they who were struggling most to adapt to present context.

Many observers criticized this polar view of human nature as being over simplistic but McGregor’s central point – as with Maslow[3] before him – was that most people were motivated to give their best and would actively seek responsibility if they had clear goals they were committed to and could see the impact of their contribution. With a newly distributed team we can make a choice to give trust or face weeks of frustration fuelled by feelings of being out of control, and worry about what individuals are actually doing on company time.


So, what if leaders diverted their attention away from issues of trust for a moment and started to frame the problem more in terms of motivation and contribution? How can I create the conditions in this now virtual team whereby each individual can find their own motivation? This being a more helpful question than: how can I over-come my suspicious nature, even if I wanted to? In our experience, when a leader creates the right conditions, people engage and the issue of trust rarely emerges.

Talk to anyone who has worked from home over a significant period of time and they will tell you that their motivation ebbs and flows through any given day or week. However, another theory of motivation[4] suggests that if leaders focus on creating 3 core conditions in the work environment, they increase the chances of a performer finding a more consistent and robust sense of motivation for themselves:

Purpose and Contribution

Many of the people we speak to who demonstrate unwavering drive and persistence in their work are dedicated to a higher cause or purpose and are driven by a desire to make a strong contribution to the work of their team. They go above and beyond the call of duty to persist and perform tasks and work productively, even at times of uncertainty. Finding significance in the project they are working on drives them. Where leaders actively help their people to find ways to contribute the to the team’s ambition and goals that is based on their strengths and passions, motivation increases.

Cultivating a sense of choice 

The more sense of choice people have about how they make that contribution, the higher levels of interest, excitement and commitment they bring. A choice mobilises people’s energies. Micro-management and constraints will sap them. Leaders may not be able to give people full choice over the end game but they can provide choice over contribution and latitude to deliver in a way that fits people’s preferences and strengths.

Growing capability

People want to feel that they are getting better, every day, at what they do. The feelings associated with increased levels of competence fuel confidence and development. Where leaders provide the opportunity for people to stretch themselves and learn something new, motivation increases and is more sustainable.


In our experience, trust building in a team, virtual or otherwise, begins with the leader working every day on becoming worthy of their team members trust. Rather than inviting people to earn their trust the best leaders see it in reverse – ‘it’s my job to earn my people’s trust’. Research[5] tells us that the best leaders do this by paying attention to:

  1. What they say and how they deploy their skills and experience in support of others development
  2. Doing what they say they will do
  3. Being genuinely interested in understanding the world of their team members – what makes them tick?

By combining this personal focus on becoming trustworthy themselves with creating the core conditions for people to find their own motivation, leaders who may be challenged most by engaging their teams in the current context, may discover a new path forward. It is the combination of human factors, such as trust and motivation, and technical solutions that will ultimately fuel success.

Before COVID 19, technology was already making it easier for people to work when they want, where they want, for the hours they want, and for the company they want. This is a trend that has now accelerated many fold – along with people’s increased desire to contribute and make a difference.

[1] Garvey-Berger, J (2016) Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

[2] McGregor, D (1960) The Human Side of Enterprise

[3] Maslow, A (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, p370–396.

[4] Ryan, R. M.; Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being”. American Psychologist55: 68–78.

[5] Maister, D.H., Green, C.H., & Galford, R.M., (2000) The Trusted Advisor New York: Free Press,

How to improve productivity in uncertain times

Leading by objectives helps improve productivity

Over the last 3 weeks of lockdown we have spoken to a number of business leaders about the impact that this period of change is having on their business and the different demands it places on their leadership. After the initial phase in which most leaders described a need simply to affect the changes necessary to keep the business functioning, came the need to explore new ways of working that were going to meet the challenges of the uncertainty we are all facing. For many this requirement was driven by teams being forced into working at home and far away from the central hub of business activity.

Many leaders have learnt quickly how to use technology in order to help people stay connected. For many, this is clearly a straightforward and natural process of adaptation. For others, it runs counter to how they prefer to lead. For some, the idea of having the majority of their team working from home is scary. How do I know they are doing the right things? How can I trust them to do what they say they are going to do? This often drives an over-dependence on the technology to ‘check-in’ with people – what they really mean is ‘check-up’.

Same but different

Talking to a senior leader in the world of banking last week we heard that those leaders who appear to be thriving currently are those who have already developed strong, high trust, relationships with their team members. In our research on how the most effective leaders ‘show up’ day to day with their followers we identified 5 essential human qualities that exist in all of us that we can practise consciously in order to build engagement and develop high performance: Determination, Compassion, Balance, Discovery, and Perspective.[1] Leaders develop their credibility with others by building these capabilities through deliberate practice. When the context for leadership changes dramatically it appears these qualities matter more than ever.

For many organisations, of course, the transition to a more distributed workforce happened a decade ago and they are largely untouched by this hiatus. Listening to Mark Mullenweg, Founder of WordPress, being interviewed recently on Sam Harris’s wonderful podcast on the future of work[2] you get sense of the massive benefits of having a globally distributed workforce. Find the best talent in the world and provide them with innovative ways to connect and magic will happen. However, many organisations are still organised on more traditional lines and therefore have leaders at the helm for whom navigating this new context remains tough. It rubs against their strong need for control and for systems and process over the more human qualities identified above.

Managing by outcomes

It is an old idea, but could Managing by Outcomes be an approach that would help such leaders succeed in this new order? Simply put, managing by outcomes means defining organisational goals; communicating these objectives clearly; rigorously measuring performance against those goals and then continuously managing the organisation in line with those goals and measures. It strikes us that a structured, goal-focussed approach, makes sense when followers are outside of a leader’s line of sight for extended periods of time.

In this approach, leaders give people the big picture because they recognise that the most talented performers prefer to work with high levels of autonomy. They then manage by outcomes rather than by tasks.They spend a lot of time with people agreeing on what must be delivered. They make crystal-clear contracts about the real results to achieve. From then on virtually every performance conversation will start by concentrating on the agreed outcomes rather than get into supervising the tasks or justifying their working week.

In our experience, organisations who use this approach well:

  • have a clear vision of why they exist, what they want to achieve and how well they are achieving against this;
  • plan their work keeping in mind a clear set of individual and team goals
  • take stock of their progress by monitoring, measuring, reviewing and re-evaluating as they go;
  • learn from success and failure, then modify what they do and how they do it in response;
  • report openly on their results, promoting transparency and providing a basis for dialogue about future decisions in the team

Interestingly they do not stop there. They also aim to deliver in a manner that is consistent with the values and principles that characterise the organisation. They encourage people to focus on setting the bar high when making decisions on how they go about their daily work.

A number of organisations we work with have successfully shifted to this way of working. One in particular, until recent events took over, had all their staff under one roof, but have moved seamlessly to becoming a distributed workforce. The leader tells us that clarity is vital and their role is to communicate the big picture, provide structures and frameworks to guide people and be world class at goal setting and reviewing. Each team member’s role is to make clear contracts about their part in achieving the goals. If people get out of bed a little later than usual or take time out in their day to teach their child’s English lesson, can we learn to live with it – so long as people are delivering what they say are going to deliver?

By David Pilbeam (MA) Leadership coach and coaching supervisor

[1] Pilbeam, D & Wallis, G.P., (2018) Leader iD: Discover your leadership profile – and how to improve. Pearson, London

[2] #194 The New Future of Work, A Conversation with Matt Mullenberg on Making Sense with Sam Harris, Podcast

Preparing to succeed

Some sunkissed, sun-lounger moments over the last few weeks will doubtless have been spent thinking about the start of the final third of 2019 and how to prepare best for a strong finish to the year. What better time to share with you a summary of the key insights provided by Olympian and Paralympian coach, Keith Antoine, when he was a guest on the Success iD podcast sharing his views on the importance of preparation.

The business case for preparation

There’s a difference between preparation and catering for eventualities. People think they have to prepare for what’s going to happen, which is different to preparing for what may happen. Here’s where I am, here’s where I want to go, I will lay the ground as I want the ground to go, yet life has a tendency to mess that up. This can lead people either to feeling, “What’s the point in preparing as you can’t guarantee how it’s going to go?” or over preparing, which can be unhelpfully constraining. You need to look down the road, see the journey, predict what might happen, then prepare yourself for those things that may occur. Being prepared for unpredictability gives you flexibility. A practical way to deal with reality.

Flexibility in planning is key

Expect a plan not to go to plan. Break a goal into small sections – it’s more practical to get from A to B then think about what route the journey make take from B to C, rather than A – Z from the get go.

For example, if you were aiming for success at the next Olympics: Then track back, to where you would be in an ideal world, at each separate staging post, ie each championship along the way or the end of each season. Ideally. Not setting these in stone. The stepping stones will ultimately just be fond memories, or not so fond if you get beaten along the way…but that’s okay, as at that point in the journey you were working on these as building blocks for your ultimate success i.e. gold medal at the next Olympics.

So, for leaders, you need to hold on to both the macro and the micro – the end state and where you are now. Leaders have pressures of hitting targets by year end, etc, as that’s what they’ll be judged on, just like heading for the Olympics. It can seem conflicting to take care of today in the rush for tomorrow but you absolutely have to deal with today in the context of tomorrow. People get wrapped up in the busy and judge output as success, but can’t join that up with future goals. That’s normal.

In big complex organisations it can be harder to make those adjustments when people are looking to you but the principle is the same. The world of business is moving so fast now, it is likely that a fixed path will not be relevant by the time you reach the destination. A good leader needs to have the ability to say “you know this plan we had, we need to change it as everything we can see in the environment is telling us the world has changed so what’s the point of keeping to our plan when it won’t apply anymore.”

Coach Keith and I unpicking preparation as a topic.

Connection between preparation and creativity

Some feel that too much preparation stifles the spark of creativity. However, without a foundation of preparation, a core, a central theme, how can you channel creativity effectively? Keith enjoys the creative challenge of working with Paralympians – no two bodies are alike. Working with Richard Whitehead, the double gold medal winning 200m sprinter, preparation/research/understanding of the facts enabled him to innovatively overcome technical issues Richard was having with his prosthetic legs on the bend of the track, to achieve a faster performance and the ultimate success.

In a business context example, prepared key notes for a speaking event are your backbone, but presenting is more than reading something out. You need to read your audience and engage with them and adapt to them.

Preparation is actually freeing, not constraining, both in sport and in leadership. It liberates us as long as it’s servicing the end. For example, Keith’s detailed notes of each training session enable him to deviate from the plan due to unforeseen circumstances like injury or sickness, as he knows exactly the position they need to come back to. If you resist spending more time on building the right foundations, the building won’t be able to fight the vagaries of the actual or the organisational elements, many of which are unforeseeable.

The relationship between preparation and experience

Leaders with many years’ experience, should be able to prep more effectively, faster. They can more quickly work out what should/may happen, at the same time as accepting it’s not absolute and it’s not infallible.

Experience is a wonderful thing as long as it doesn’t stop you looking around and constantly monitoring what’s happening in the here-and-now. New concepts are popping up all the time and experience allows you to determine whether you should pay attention to it or not. A coach may say “This is the latest thing, we need to use this…” Great, take a look at it, however, just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better. Experience will help you make those judgements. But you need to be open to looking at it, not just pay lip service. You may have 20 years’ experience doing something one way but a new way looks better. It doesn’t make that 20 years wrong. It was probably fit for purpose then. Value the experience but don’t get locked in to the experience.

Biggest ‘bang for buck’ takeaway for this topic of Preparation for Success

What really makes preparation work is trusting yourself. It’s very easy to get locked into preparation because you’re trying to justify what you’re doing to others, and it’s very easy to concentrate on creativity because you want to validate others’ ideas, but at some point the decision has to be made about what direction you take and you have to trust in yourself, your beliefs, your system, as that’s what drives everything else. It’s easy to get lost in the system and the organisation.

There’s a place for all of that but the most effective way is to trust in yourself whilst being open to other influences. If you’re comfortable with yourself and trust yourself, you’ll be in the best position to work effectively.

To listen to the original broadcast of Preparation as Success with Keith Antoine, please subscribe to the Success iD podcast on Spotify, Stitcher or iTunes.