A leader's job is to motivate their team, right?

Decades of research has shown that alignment behind a common purpose and making progress towards a goal are the things that generate the most engagement.

If your team is doing work that requires any level of problem solving and creativity, then engagement is what you need.

The most innovative solutions and quickest turnarounds on tasks happen when people have the full weight of their attention and enthusiasm behind them.

Imagine two teams. One is frantic and stressed; everything is urgent, and they are afraid they'll get fired if something slips. The other is cool, confident, and genuinely seems to enjoy their job and working together.

If you were given a choice, which team would you give a mission-critical job to?

If you answered "team two" this article will help you understand how to create a team like that. If you answered "team one" -- this article is especially for you.

Theory X and Theory Y

While most leaders I encounter know their job is to create engaged teams, most also feel they fall short.

This isn't because they lack intelligence or discipline. It's also not because their intent is wrong.

I find failure to create engagement is almost always due to unconscious behaviors rooted in a faulty mindset. This mindset so pervasive that -- like water to fish -- we don't even know we're swimming in it.

The mindset I'm talking about was nicely articulated by MIT Professor Douglas McGregor in his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, where he described two differing views of human motivation: Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X says that, on the whole, people:

  • Dislike work, find it boring, will avoid it if they can
  • Must be forced or coerced to make the right effort
  • Are motivated mainly by money and job security
  • Have little creativity, except for getting around rules

Theory Y says that, on the whole, people:

  • Need and want to work
  • Can self-direct in pursuit of a shared goal
  • Will seek responsibility
  • Are motivated by the desire to fulfill potential
  • Are highly creative, under the right conditions

You probably see many people in your organization you'd lump into the Theory X bucket (though you probably think of yourself in Theory Y terms). This isn't an accident. Behavior and mindset are highly dependent on context and most organizations have been designed with Theory X at the core of their DNA.

To understand why Theory X is so pervasive, we need to go back to the dawn of management theory, specifically to Frederick Taylor: the father of scientific management.

Even though many of his ideas have been discredited, Taylor's work forms the basis of almost all organization structures and compensation systems.

It's a set of organizational habits that run so deep most of us just think of it as "the way things are done." It isn't conscious, let alone up for debate.

Taylor wanted to understand how owners could get the most out of a worker (e.g. a unit of labor). Most of his answers had to do with subtle, and not so subtle, forms of coercion -- incentives and punishments were the main tools of motivation.

But what modern research tells us -- from economics, social sciences, and psychology -- is that this kind of motivation only works for routine manual tasks. For tasks that require even basic cognitive engagement, carrots and sticks can actually de-motivate and lead to worse results.

Taylor's work is remarkably similar to work done making slave plantations more efficient. While it's unclear if Taylor based his work on that done by slave owners -- though one of his close collaborators, Henry Laurence Gantt inventor of the Gantt chart, was raised on a plantation -- they did arrive very much at the same style of management.

It's no wonder that we've ended up with a model of management and motivation most effective with coerced manual labor.

What to Do About It

If you're wondering why you're not getting the productivity, engagement, and creativity you want from your team, the answer is likely: because you're treating them (at least on some level) like slaves.

The place to start is by retraining your own mindset with the books and articles I list below. But the best thing you can do is talk to your people and begin to run some experiments -- no matter how small -- that increase autonomy and the opportunity to self-manage.

Given the right context most people will step up. It starts with you.