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Where is Theory Y?

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This column in Forbes by Rob Asghar literally paralyzed me for a few moments.

Forbes is known for taking provocative positions at times but this one challenges some of my core values as to what it means to be a successful leader, let alone good person.  In a nutshell, he argues that the only important factor in evaluating leader success is bottom line results, regardless of the process. In other words, any means to an end (thank you, Machiavelli).  Rob has no data to support his position, but he protects himself by saying that successful leaders (and he, himself) do not care to hear from the “experts,” i.e., social scientists like many of us, about process.  So what follows is probably an exercise in futility if I think it will ever be read by people like him.  But it gives me the opportunity to bring to you a few nuggets that I’ve seen relating to this topic in the last few weeks. And a couple that go way back.

First, this discussion gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Blake and Mouton’s seminal book, The Managerial Grid. (As an aside, dozens of people entered into a recent LinkedIn discussion I began in the I/O Practitioners space regarding what are some core knowledge areas an I/O Psychologist should be expected to possess, though the discussion went off in other directions.  At one point I offered up the Hawthorne Studies, and I would add The Managerial Grid to that list. I will also add Douglas McGregor’s Theory X/Theory Y, discussed below.)

For the uninitiated, the Managerial Grid is a 9×9 matrix that plots leader behaviors on an X-axis (Task orientation) and a Y-axis (Relationship orientation).  Not by coincidence, McGregor’s Theory X behavior is very task oriented while Theory Y describes a much more participative style (with McGregor being first, around 1960).  In the Grid, ideal leader is 9-9, an equally strong emphasis on task and relationship. (I recall once when a colleague was trying to force me to do something and accusing him of trying to “9-1” me, that is to do something regardless of how I felt about it, which, by the way, is basically what Asghar is promoting.)

Leaders who demonstrate no respect for others occasionally do succeed. Of course, Steve Jobs is the most cited example. This past week I watch a PBS biography on Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, and I (and others) would add him to this list. He was universally labeled an “SOB.”  No one could remember him ever saying “thank you.”  But he was an obsessive believer in accountability, for both others and himself.  And he was consistent.  And, ultimately, he was successful in achieving his vision.  Mr. Asghar also uses Nick Saban, very successful coach at Alabama, as another example. But these are extraordinary people and exceptions in many ways.

Here’s another article, this time from HBR, which not only has data, it is titled “The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss.”

Using various studies, the author (Emma Seppala) asserts the following:

  • Putting pressure on subordinates that increases stress that leads to high health care and turnover costs.
  • Acts of altruism increase status in the organization.
  • Fair treatment leads to higher productivity and citizenship behaviors
  • Leaders who project warmth are more effective.
  • Employees that feel greater trust for a leader that is kind.

So there is a cost to being a Theory X (9-1) manager, i.e., the health and well-being of your employees. And the cost is getting bigger everyday unfortunately with the state of our healthcare system.

In my last blog (, I revisited the concept of “trust” and labeled it the “sine qua non” (without which there is nothing) of effective leadership.  Trust is a complex behavioral construct, but I totally agree that kindness is an important component. Kindness doesn’t have to mean being soft; it is more akin to empathy, having sensitivity to the feelings of others, particularly when the message is difficult. We are seeing “kindness” being mentioned in a growing number of organizations. Part of that comes from respecting the whole person and his/her point of view and emotions without having to abdicate the responsibility for delivering on individual, team and organization performance commitments.

This piece by Stephanie Vozza from Fast Company ( starts right off with this statement: “For decades, managers led with a heavy hand from corner offices.” She goes on to contrast that with how managers will be most effective in today’s workplace, building upon some work by the Addison Group.  She (and they) maintains that the answer isn’t to be the “best friend” of subordinates, but instead to be a mentor who provides guidance and advice, both on daily performance and careers.

(I do disagree with 2 of her points. First, she maintains that this situation is being caused by the arrival of millennials that have different expectations of management.  Au contraire!  ALL workers have a need to be respected with all the leadership behaviors that that implies, including honoring the value and needs of each person.

Secondly, I take issue with the use of the word “mentor” in this context. We should clearly differentiate between “mentor” and “coach,” specifically manager as coach. But these points get us off track from our theme here.)

Having done employee surveys for over 35 years and 360’s almost as long, recurring themes in drivers of engagement and evaluations of leader effectiveness continue to be trust and support in helping employees develop and plan for careers.

Let me add one other point to the value of believing that the “means” is as important as the end. An I/O colleague told me of a piece of research that has stuck with him that indicated that a strongest predictor of employee ethical behavior was immediate manager ethical (or not) behavior.  There are many potential explanations for why that is, but those are not as important as saying if we believe ethical behavior is important in our organization, we can observe and measure it, and, if it leads to more of that desired behavior, the organization and its customers will benefit. This, of course, applies to other important leadership behaviors, often captured in Values statements that hang on walls and too infrequently actually measured.

Allan Church and I bring the “how” versus “what” of performance into the Performance Management discussion in our article from last year ( OV.pdf).  One of the points we make is that organizations are very good at measuring the “what” side of performance (i.e., tangible, objective achievements) and much less adept at measuring the “how” (i.e., the means to the end, the behaviors demonstrated).  A parallel argument can be made that leaders/managers/supervisors find it much easier to manage the “what” side, and, because it is more difficult, give much less (if any) attention to the relationship part of leading, including coaching.

We are certainly not advocating the abandonment of the “what” measures. We are suggesting that an overemphasis on the “how” side of leader behavior is needed until they balance out, both at the individual and organizational level, i.e., achieving more “9-9” management at all levels.

I suspect that the majority of the readers of this blog are the “experts” Asghar references and dismisses. And to you colleagues, I am hopefully preaching to the choir (as they say).  If that is not the case, then please let us know what that position is.

For those of you not in the “choir,” I hope you read Asghar’s piece and see if you think he has a valid point. Reflect on both how it applies in your organization and for your own behavior as a leader/manager.

Everybody should sit back and reflect on where/when we see or don’t see Theory Y behavior at all levels of leadership and how to create more 9-9 leaders.  We should demand accountability for both “what” and “how” measurement aligned with both strategy and organizational values.

©2014 David W. Bracken