Thursday, May 31, 2018

Skillful management: Beyond carrots, sticks, and kumbaya

Different contexts call for different styles of management. An over-simplified summary:

The two key points:
  1.  Self-organisation requires a high level of team maturity
  2.  Relying on carrots and especially sticks is disastrous for complex work

Theory X and Theory Y

It's over 50 years since Douglas McGregor introduced his Theory X and Theory Y characterisation of managers, or — as we might say today — management mindsets.

Theory X managers believe that people are largely extrinsically motivated, by rewards (yummy carrots) and punishments (beatings with sticks) and accordingly must be strictly managed. By complete contrast Theory Y managers believe that people are intrinsically motivated by the likes of Connection, Automation, Mastery, and Purpose, and function better when given support and encouragement.

In principle Theory X managers tend to favour a command-and-control style of management, while Theory Y managers will opt for self-organisation and servant leadership, sometimes parodied as everyone gathering around the campfire singing kumbaya.

The risks of Theory X command-and-control management are well-documented when it comes to knowledge work: demotivated, uncreative employees.

On the other hand the risk with "the stand back and let it happen" style of "management" as an attempt at Theory Y is that if self-organisation doesn't spontaneously break out there can be a strong tendency to fall back into command-and-control. This is particularly the case when the manager doesn't have any other strings to her or his bow.

Work Complexity and Team Maturity

Context is at least as important as individual mindset.

In a crisis for example, command-and-control can be appropriate. But be very wary of a manager who manufactures crises to justify a preference for personal control. Carrots and sticks can be also be effective for low-complexity work. [Here I'm using complexity as a catch-all for volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity (VUCA).] 

For high-complexity work a mature, compatible, motivated, and suitably skilled team can figure out what to do and how to do it. In this context self-organisation is key and the management role reverts to setting overall direction and providing outward facing support. In this happy context, kumbaya management works.

But what if the team is lacking in the necessary maturity to self-organise, or is short on a few key skills? Throwing them together and hoping that they gel seems like a dubious bet. That's where skillful management (and coaching) can be of great value.

In the short term, a skillful manager can act as glue and internal support for the team while also helping them to develop in maturity to the point where they can self-organise without additional managerial support.


Really skillful managers adapt to the people and to the context. Working with people is a complex endeavour in itself and the wise learn from experiment as well as theory.

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Astute readers will have noticed that I haven't defined skillful management (yet) ... stay tuned.

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