Hamza Kahn is an award-winning marketer, successful entrepreneur, and keynote speaker. We watched a TED talk of his wherein he talked about Theory X vs. Theory Y. To be honest, we weren’t familiar with either one of these theories. But Theory X, he explained, holds that employees are lazy, can’t be trusted, and dislike work. Therefore, they must be closely managed in order to keep them productive. Theory Y, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Theory X. Theory Y maintains that employees are ambitious, self-motivated, exercise self-control, and actually enjoy both the physical and mental aspects of their work. Whether you have Theory X employees or Theory Y employees, Kahn says, depends entirely on the conditions (the culture) in which they are expected to work. So what conditions does Kahn say produce Theory Y employees? For that answer, please continue reading below.
“You manage things. You lead people.” ~ Peter Drucker, consultant, lecturer, author
Kahn points out that people don’t like to be managed. They feel like they’re being manipulated and it’s dehumanizing. Therefore, the current “command and control” management model doesn’t work. That model, Kahn says, is particularly unsuited for:
- Creative agencies
- Think tanks
- Start ups
- Or, according to Kahn, “Anywhere where the next generation is trying to do creative work, entrepreneurial work, or information-based work.”
He could probably short-hand this to include any organization that is trying to do creative or innovative thinking.
The biggest hurdle we face when we’re trying to do creative or innovative work is overcoming tradition. The notion that “we’ve always done it this way” kills innovation. It’s nonsense to think that we can come up with new ways to do things if we’re going to insist on doing things the way we’ve always done them. As they say, “You can’t steal second base and still keep one foot on first.”
As Kahn has pointed out, people don’t like to be managed, but they will welcome leadership. So how do we substitute leadership for management and create an environment where Theory Y can thrive? Kahn gives us a shopping list of stuff:
- Give your people credit for being adults who are completely capable of managing themselves.
- Give your people the benefit of the doubt. Trust that they are coming to work for the right reasons , , , that they want to work and to do good work.
- Give them well-defined areas of responsibility with goals and deadlines.
- Make sure they have the right resources to do good work including training, as needed.
- Allow them to work whenever and wherever they want as long as their work is getting done on time and to a high degree of quality.
- Create a culture that feels more like a community than a workplace . . . a place where your people can be among friends and colleagues and be comfortable being themselves.
- Be a leader, not a manager or a “boss.” That means being a:
- Protector/defender (make sure they know you always have their backs)
The guiding light here is to focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Worry only about the results people are getting. As long as they’re producing high-quality work and delivering it on time, why should you care when, where, or how they’re doing it. As needed, help them with work flow and setting priorities, but then get out of their way and let them work.
Celebrated French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
That’s probably way too idealistic if you’re a committed Theory X guy. As a matter of fact, most of what Kahn preaches is probably way too idealistic if you’re a committed Theory X guy, and that’s OK. Kahn’s vision of a perfect workplace isn’t for everyone. But if you suspect your destiny lies with Theory Y, answer a few simple questions:
- Are you prepared to break with tradition, to innovate, and to reject the notion that you should continue doing things a certain way just because that’s the way you’ve always done them?
- Are you prepared to focus exclusively on the results your people are achieving while ignoring how, where, and when they’re achieving those results?
- Are you capable of leading your people rather than trying to manage them?
- Do you believe your people have the desire and maturity to responsibly handle the freedoms that come with a Theory Y environment?
If you answered “yes” to each of those questions, then what are you waiting for? Go for it! If you do, and if you believe what Kahn is preaching, you’ll end up with a workforce that’s more creative, more innovative, more motivated, and more engaged in their work than you would have thought possible.