Do you like humans?

Photo by Andrii Podilnyk
Photo by Andrii Podilnyk

Okay, I admit, the question is a little mean. Hardly anyone can say “no” to this. But what about a special kind of people – your employees? They can be quite annoying sometimes. But yes, they are humans – with all their strengths and weaknesses. It gets really interesting when several of them come together. Then the interpersonal dimension kicks in. But isn’t that exactly the interesting aspect of a leadership assignment?

The question of how to deal with interpersonal dynamics is as old as mankind. After all, this has always led to heat – in some cases frictional heat. You experience anything working with people. I once coined the sentence: “The only reliable boundaries are the mechanical ones. Everything that is mechanically possible will also happen sooner or later”. So, you have to be prepared to get into hair-pulling situations when you hold responsibility for people.

Nevertheless, it is as always in life: It also depends very much on the perspective you put on. You can go through the world with negative glasses to be prepared for the worst case, or you tend to think positively with the risk of facing disappointments from time to time.

Douglas McGregor defined a basic theory on the view of humans already back in 1960, which found its way into modern leadership education as Theory X-Y.

So, the idea of man in Theory X is rather negative: People don’t want to work. They have no ambitions and prefer to be patronized by others. They avoid responsibility, lack creativity and resist change. As a manager, you focus on elementary needs such as security to motivate the workers. Strong control mechanisms and supervision are needed to achieve corporate goals. Authority is centralized in an autocratic style of leadership, as employees are not self-motivated.

Theory Y contrasts this with a completely different view of humanity: Work is a natural part of life like rest or play. People are intrinsically motivated and can adapt their behavior. Under the right conditions, they like to seek and assume responsibility. People are creative by nature. Their basic needs also include social contacts, recognition, self-realization as motivation drivers. People can direct themselves. Leadership can be decentralized accordingly and everyone should become part of the decision-making process. People, therefore, have their drive.

As with the initial question, it is, of course, difficult to defend Theory X like this. From today’s point of view, it seems to have fallen somewhat out of time and to be from the 1920s, when uneducated farmers were domesticated for work in industrial production. But if we recall how many management methods (time recording, work packages, work processes, …) are still normal today in our day-to-day management, then we might start to ponder.

Let’s be honest: haven’t we all thought: “If I don’t do everything myself…” or “Why aren’t they motivated?” Every incident immediately poses the question of the appropriate control process. We even have to document and prove these processes so that we are not held liable as managers in case of an incident. Thus, it’s not that easy to exclude Theory X from our everyday work – even in working environments with a high proportion of academics.

I had an intensive discussion about it with one of my old bosses. He insisted to not compare the environment in a bank with that of a consulting firm. After all, a consulting firm is full of young, motivated employees burning for their job. According to him, this is not the case with a grown line organization. Well, he was partly right, of course.  In a classic company, the age structure alone is much broader. There are inexperienced but highly motivated young people, deep experts and a few old hands who have fought many battles. And the whole range is usually present in one department.

However, it is undisputed that these are also humans, even well-educated humans, who for the most part once achieved an academic degree. Humans who are looking for more than physical security and task descriptions in control processes. Humans who are creative and like doing their job – and taking on responsibility under the right conditions.

“Under the right conditions” strongly depends on the culture of handling mistakes. Nobody will be happy to assume responsibility if they are driven by fear. And any creativity will certainly be dwarfed by constant routine tasks.

I have always incorporated this reflection on humanity into my Agile seminars. To make it very clear: Agile only works with Theory Y! If you want to introduce Agile in a company, you should always use Mc Gregor’s table as a mirror and ask yourself critically how much Theory X is still left in you.

And yes, sometimes there will be stupidity. But just as we give our children space for development, it is the task of modern leaders to create the right environment for our employees to develop their potential.

What about you?

  • Have you ever been angry with one of your employees?
  • Have you ever had to justify the wrongdoing of an employees to a higher position?
  • Have you ever thought about how you can increase creativity and personal accountability?

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