dave williams

Are you an X or Y manager?

In an increasingly competitive world, where genuinely demonstrating a clear differential is important for organisational success, it can't just be about doing it cheaper or more efficiently. It's about unlocking value - and value resides more so in people than in technology and product.

In this blog piece, Impact Founder and CEO David Williams argues that all people development should be inspirational, should focus on achieving potential and should help destroy cultures of fear, creating real opportunities for innovation and growth.

I remember when I was first introduced to Douglas McGregor's XY theory. It was very early in my career in people development and I was fascinated by the prospect that anyone could (as detailed in theory X), dislike their work and would do what they could to avoid it. I couldn't even contemplate a management style that assumed people subscribe to theory X. 

If you haven't come across it before then it looks something like this. 

Theory x ('authoritarian management' style):

•  The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he/she can.

•  Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.

•  The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.

Theory y ('participative management' style):

•  Effort in work is as natural as work and play.

•  People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.

•  Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.

•  People usually accept and often seek responsibility.

•  The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

•  In industry the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilised. 

 

This was a formative time for me. I was just embarking on my career, focusing on working mainly with young people from businesses and industry. I was torn. On the one hand, we were working with brilliantly talented and usually (but not always) highly self-motivated young people who were at the beginning of their working lives, full of optimism and expectation, yet on the other hand, we were sending these same young people back into organisations where theory X was alive and well. Where they were soon knocked back into shape and where any aspirations for taking on more responsibility were soon drummed out of them.

The programmes we were developing were all about building leadership capability, problem solving skills and understanding how to create and work in high performing teams. They were powerful, positive, life changing experiences that accelerated individual development. Genuinely building personal confidence and introducing the lifelong skill of learning from experience, where every situation is a learning opportunity and feedback is actively sought out as a way of measuring progress.

It soon became clear to me that much of the momentum we created with individuals was being dissipated when they returned to work. They often found themselves back under the control of managers who were very traditional in their approach, who were fearful of their talent and enthusiasm and who actively blocked any of their attempts to innovate, to grow or to increase their field of responsibility. Obviously, there were exceptions to this, in the form of a handful of truly enlightened managers who got enormous pleasure and satisfaction from enabling those they were responsible for, to grow and move up in the organisation.

When we started Impact back in 1980, we were determined to change things for the better. Instead of sending people back into organisations where the culture of management stifles and frustrates, we wanted to create positive reception areas that would enable the behaviours developed on our programmes to be incubated, supported and promoted. Some of this was achieved by extending the programmes to include on-going coaching, follow-up events and action learning projects. All of which were designed to engage managers in the development process. Yet it became increasingly clear that really affecting change would mean changing cultures, and cultures usually start at the top!

We began marketing our services to more senior managers and top teams, driving towards our ambition to generate higher levels of awareness of the need to create cultures of learning and development

The first real senior management programme I ran was in 1983. It was for a company called Haden who were a nationwide heating and ventilation organisation, involved in managing some very big construction sites across the country – including hospitals, power stations and other high profile civil engineering projects. It was designed as a five-day, advanced project management programme, focused on developing further the skills and capabilities of these already, highly experienced project managers. 

The average age of this all-male group was early to mid-50s and I was 26. In fact, there was no one at the time in the whole of our organisation who was over the age of 30! As they began to arrive up the drive of the country house hotel we had booked for the event, I went out to meet them. They mistook me for the baggage boy and gave me their cases - a very embarrassing moment all around! I can still remember the programme like it was yesterday. In the first introductory meeting, when it became evidently clear that they didn't really want to be there, one of them asked me "And what is it you intend teaching us about management then, laddie?!"

It was a difficult start and my response, "nothing actually, but we have created some powerful opportunities for you to learn from your own experience" did little to reassure them. For much of the week, the adrenalin was running off the walls! Ours as much as theirs. It was two steps forward and one step back. Talking about behaviour, giving and receiving feedback and accepting mistakes were all counter cultural to them. Gradually, however, we managed to get under their skin and through a process of challenge and support, mixed with humour and intuitive facilitation, we built strong relationships with them and got them to a place where they were actively enjoying and learning from the whole experience. Our approach was to present them with problems that needed solving. Problems that increased in complexity, where time, resources and people all needed to be managed. Whilst the problems were all unfamiliar to them, the processes required were familiar and the lessons learnt - through carefully guided discussions and reviews - were absolutely relevant and valuable.

If I had been a similar age to them, an expert in project management with a reputation to match and had set out to teach them about stuff they hadn't heard about, to do with their professional skills, it would have been easy. Up until then, this was their experience of training. 

There was a lot of learning from experience happening on that programme, and it wasn't all with the delegates.

It was summed up for me in a quote that one of the participants wrote in his appraisal. 

"On most training courses, I leave with a full briefcase and an empty head, this time it was the reverse".

Haden is now part of Balfour Beatty. Unfortunately, many of that group are no longer with us, but I am still in touch with a couple of them, one of whom went on to become Managing Director of the company and claims that much of his subsequent success was down to his experience and learning from the programme.

My point is; I think that all people development should be inspirational, should focus on achieving potential and should help to destroy cultures of fear, creating real opportunities for innovation and growth.

In an increasingly competitive world, where genuinely demonstrating a clear differential is important for organisational success, it can't just be about doing it cheaper or more efficiently. It's about unlocking value and value resides more so in people than in technology and product. Most organisations strive for discretionary effort and genuine employee engagement, where people are encouraged to manage as if it's their own business. Yet what many of them offer in terms of development falls well short of this aspiration. 

Instead of creating transformational learning through immersive experience, they deliver workshops that are focused on "how we do things around here". Chalk and talk, or what is now known as death by powerpoint.

Training is fine for the nuts and bolts. Teaching people how to use the systems, "this goes here, that goes there, this is what you have to do if that happens" etc. etc. etc. But development is about engagement and about creating a better future. It's not about what is now, it's about what can be. It's about unlocking potential, inspiring people to learn from their experience, generating momentum and creating cultures that empower and enhance people's engagement with their passion for work. 

So where are you at?

Does your organisation subscribe to theory X or theory Y? And if it's theory Y, does your culture of development genuinely match up?

Next time - theory Z!

David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO.