Every organization has a culture established at its beginning and changed only with considerable effort and pain.  Leadership and management will operate on the basis of one of three theories of people – Theories X, Y and Z.

In a Theory X organization, people are considered lazy and therefore management must be authoritarian – a top-down, centralized control system is used to make sure that everyone is doing the right thing.  In a Theory Y organization, people are assumed to be involved and anxious to do a good job and therefore management encourages participation – involving employees in decision making, while retains decision-making power.  In a Theory Z organization, people at all levels are engaged to promote stable employment, high productivity, and high employee morale and satisfaction.

I’ve used the shorthand notation of hobnailed boots; touchy-feely and aligned to described the three theories.  I’ve also taught that all three theories are correct and have a place in any leader’s playbook.  But how can that be?  Why would a hobnailed boot leader ever be appropriate?  When there’s no time for anything else – life-and-death situations and decisions must be made immediately.  The critical difference in the application is the time factor.  Theory Y and Z take time.  Theory X doesn’t.

Another critical factor is the type and number of people involved.  Theory X evolved out of our ancestors’ situations, particularly organizing and directing large numbers of people.  The people were required to perform straightforward tasks but they had to be performed in concert with others.  Therefore, the directions were essentially what, where, with whom, and now.  The roman army and the medieval Catholic Church are the classic examples.  The influx of immigrants into the US in the late 1800’s and their employment in the manufacturing industries resulted in the work of Frederick Taylor which broke work down into single, simple steps which allowed for limited communication capabilities – people were turned into machines.

By the 1950’s this theory wasn’t working very well in the US.  The increase in education levels, both in numbers and levels, resulted in a work force that didn’t need to be directed in every detail of work.  The work itself changed, becoming more complex and requiring increased investment in the tools – a draftsman needs a good drawing board, good lighting, a few triangles, T squares and pencils and pens at a cost of a few hundred dollars versus today a multi-thousand-dollar work station and its accompanying software consisting of millions of lines of code with the associated training costs.  The stage was set for Theory Y.  And the situation improved but the conflict in the transition was immense and continues to this day.  Because Theory X behavior is our natural default for leadership.  Theory Y requires time and consistent effort – something we don’t do naturally.

However, even in organizations that totally adopted Theory Y, not everything worked the way that produced the expected results.  In Theory X, the mission was the most important goal – if people were helped or benefited that was great but not the objective.  In Theory Y, the people became the important goal with the expectation that the mission would benefit, but experience showed that didn’t always happened.  The great paradox is that you had to choose mission or people but there was no way that managers could do both – it seemed.

That was where Theory Z started.  Was there a way to accomplish both mission and people?  The answer is yes, but it’s not an easy or natural thing to do.  It requires compromise to achieve optimization.  When you optimize, you don’t get the maximum results in any one area but the overall best results.  And the frustrating aspect is that there may be more than one method or combination of factors that will result in the optimum result.  And there will be some losers along with the many winners.

The result for managers (and leaders) is a more demanding job requiring greater effort and time.  It’s no longer enough to know the technical aspects of your job but you must understand the people involved, including those that are affected by your work but not under your command.

My business partner and I help organizations develop the institutional “muscles” to live Theory Z.  It requires classes to learn the principles as well as practice in using the techniques and tools with people to perfect the means to exercise Theory Z practices.  And there is always pushback.  “I don’t see how this applies to us!” is a refrain we heard just two weeks ago, in one class.  Yes, it does and we explained how it applies but the emotional buy-in is still not there.  It takes emotional events – not teary-eyed outbursts but foundational moving experiences – to shake their core beliefs built over a 40 year adult career.  Only then does real change come.

But it takes time.


Interested in finding out what Theory Z can do for your organization?  Contact Frank for an exploratory discussion.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.