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,