Managerial Theory of Human Motivation – Theory X and Theory Y

News Flash: Most of you aren’t saving pandas. Most of you probably don’t even know that pandas need saving. But that’s not the point of this post. But a leader who recently emailed me made it a point to declare that his team must be motivated only by money, because “it’s not like we’re rescuing #%$*ing endangered pandas.”

Rescuing Pandas

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“We make ____, Matt. Seriously, how does that ‘change the world.'”

I withheld the product they make because they are one of only a few companies that manufacture that product and I want the leader to remain 100% anonymous. I can, without hesitation, tell you, that their product is very average and not, in and of itself, world changing.

This leader has a problem with me suggesting that he and his people can change the world and that he, the leader, could motivate them by anything other than money.

So, you’re not a panda rescuing non-profit living in the jungle of Africa. You make a non-essential product in a 200-person factory. Can you still change the world?

I think you know the answer. You know full well that I’m not about to suggest the answer is “no.”

I could do that, of course. I could say “screw the ‘change the world’ movement.” Forget that every one of us was born to do just that. Forget that every one of us has a unique purpose to live out. Let’s go with the theory that if you’re not saving pandas or adopting hundreds of orphans at a time or gracing the cover of every magazine in the world then you can’t change the world. I’m sure that would inspire exactly no one.

But I’m not going to do that for two reasons:

1. I don’t believe it for one second. It’s total garbage.

2. If I did believe it or even suggest it, I’d lose the will to live. If everyone’s purpose is not to change the world, then mine probably isn’t. If that’s not my purpose, I’m done. So, if for no other reason than to keep me from taking up waterless cliff diving, I’m going to hold on to the belief that we can all change the world, if only we believe so.

Managerial theory of human motivation – Theory X and Theory Y

This leader subscribes to Theory X, the managerial theory that people’s only motivation to work is money. This theory suggests that employees are inherently lazy and dislike work in general. If given the option to get away with less work, they will.

Theory X suggests that “workers” must be closely supervised and controlled. Work becomes all about systems and structure. Bureaucracy and hierarchies reign. Responsibility is shunned. Incentive programs abound. Otherwise, there would be no motivation to do anything. Sound familiar?

Theory X leaders, like this man that emailed me, rely on threat and coercion to get what they want. And they see very little meaning in their work or the work of their teams.

Theory Y, on the other hand, assumes that team members might actually be self-motivated. Further, they might even enjoy their work! GASP!

A theory Y leader goes so far as to believe that people have inherent abilities, which are often unused or underused. He or she believes that people actually want to perform their jobs well and that doing a good job is a strong motivator to achieve success.

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You can gather that Theory Y leads to a positive, trusting environment, whereas Theory X…well it mirrors a sweatshop.

You get what you expect

Remember the Pygmalion Effect?

It states that leaders get what they believe for.

Theory X leaders believe their teams are incompetent, unruly, and incapable of change. Guess what they get?

Theory Y leaders believe their teams can excel at their work, are disciplined, and adaptive. And their teams reflect that.

Both types of leaders get what they believe for. Positive workers don’t last long with Theory X leaders and, if they do, it changes them. Theory Y leaders usually don’t hire Theory X employees. And, if they do, the team members either change or don’t last very long.

Help them change the world

You and your team may not be saving pandas, but you can change the world.

Ask yourself what those around you need.

Money might be a motivation, but for reasons you don’t even know. Maybe they are funding a return to college or building orphanages in Bangladesh. Or maybe they are just trying to save enough money to give their kids a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Your company can cause huge positive social change as well. Where else but work do hundreds of people gather on a daily basis? Find ways to help them become active in the community.

They are, without a doubt, capable of and hungry for more than you’ve ever thought possible.

Action item: Ask yourself the following questions every morning. It’s the same action item I gave the guy whose team isn’t saving pandas.

Here are the questions. Answer them yourself below.

1. Do I believe that my team is intelligent, self-motivated, and able to do more than they are asked to do?

2. Do I believe that each of those areas can improve over time?

3. Do I believe that my team wants to do their best?

4. Do I believe that my team wants to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?

5. What am I doing to convey these positive feelings towards my team?

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  • Daniel Pink in his book Drive describes it this way – People are more motivated by intrinsic goals than extrinsic. That is, more by finding meaning in the work and having some autonomy how to get things done, than by money. You do have to pay people what they are worth, but if it’s your only motivator you’re gonna fall behind.

    Patrick Lencioni in one of his books talks about how a company paving roads drove home to its employees that the meaning in the work was how the job was providing for everyones family.

    • I love Daniel Pink’s stuff.

      When I look back at my last 4 jobs before going out on my own, yes money was important. But the one I enjoyed the most and feel the best about even today was the second lowest paying, but I also had the most autonomy and purpose.

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