By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute [LINK:]

Recall Douglas McGregor’s classic distinction between the assumptions of Theory X and Theory Y leaders:

  • Theory X Leaders assume that people are generally lazy, don’t want to assume responsibility, want to do the minimum possible and thus they require constant prodding and supervision.
  • Theory Y Leaders assume that people generally want to perform well and to contribute, even if they initially don’t have the skills to do so, and that if their skills are nurtured, they will grow on the job and look for ways to contribute more over time.

Matters of degree aside, McGregor claimed all leaders look at their followers through a Theory X or Theory Y lens. Leaders in both camps will concede that some people are exceptions to their sets of assumptions — but these exceptions are few and far between.

The Quotation of the Month above from Pope Benedict XVI suggests that when it comes to adopting Theory X or Theory Y, Catholic leaders really don’t have a choice.

We don’t even need to accept Pope Benedict’s assertion about the value of people to realize that from a Christian-Catholic perspective, we are all called to be Theory Y leaders. It is basic Catholic teaching that all people are endowed with God-given dignity, and Jesus himself said that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Assuming that people are just naturally lazy and not interested in contributing to anything beyond their own immediate comfort is to assume that they cannot be trusted in any relationships — that they are, in fact, neither subjects now objects of love but, essentially, the enemy.

Apart from a faith commitment, deciding which theory is “right” is a difficult thing to do. That’s because the empirical method plays tricks on us in the form of self-fulfilling prophecies.

  • If our leadership behaviors are built on Theory X assumptions, we will treat people like they are indifferent idiots — and soon enough, they will begin to behave that way (although the most talented are most likely to leave). In six months, we can build an organization where no one brings their brains or initiative to work, but we have a great body of evidence that proves our Theory X perspective is right.
  • If our leadership behaviors are built on Theory Y assumptions, we will treat people like they have dignity and bring aptitude and incentive to the job — and we will focus on developing their skills so that they can contribute in ways that build their self-esteem while breeding organizational excellence. After six months, we too will have ample anecdotal evidence that Theory Y is right.

The huge difference, of course, is that the Theory X Organization’s performance won’t begin to match the Theory Y Organization’s performance — especially over the long run.

One warning: If you are committed to building a Theory Y Organization — be in your family, your work team, your Little League squad, your parish or your global company — recognize that there will be exceptions. Some people just won’t live up your assumptions. Maybe they have been deeply scripted to do the minimum. Maybe they have an addiction. Maybe the fit with your work processes just isn’t a good one. Whatever the cause, your assumptions won’t be rewarded in every instance. And patience is essential. Still, sometimes it’s just not enough. At those times, remember that when it came to cultivating good team members, even Jesus batted only 11 out of 12. He understands your disappointment.

Copyright © 2009 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site:

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