Motivated from the Inside: Theory Y

Motivation is often viewed as an external force that leaders project onto those they lead. Optimizers, however, recognize that the most effective motivation is internally generated, and built on relationships. “Motivation is the very essence of true leadership, coupled with the ability of leaders to build an emotional attachment with their followers.”[1] Optimizers understand that everyone comes to the school with their own internal motivations. “Individuals in organizations are never simply hired hands but bring along with them their heads and hearts. They enter the organization with their own needs, beliefs, values, and motivations.”[2]

In 1960, Douglas McGregor published his now classic work, which is credited for launching the Human Resources (HR) movement, The Human Side of Enterprise.[3] McGregor introduced the Theory X and Theory Y models of management. Theory X identified managers who had command and control of their organizations, but built on the assumption that workers are not to be trusted and thus, the need for security cameras, time clocks, and continual random inspections. Theory Y on the other hand provided a completely different approach to management based on far-differing assumptions.

Theory Y is based on the following assumptions:

  • The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
  • People will exercise self-direction and self-control in serving objectives to which they are committed.
  • Commitment to objectives is the function of the rewards associated with their achievement, specifically ego and self-actualization.
  • The average human being not only accepts responsibility, but seeks it.
  • People are genuinely creative, imaginative, and possess ingenuity.
  • In most work environments, the intellectual potential of the average person is only partially utilized.[4]

McGregor identified that Theory Y managers were intentional in tapping into the internal motivations of those whom they manage. Faculty and staff candidates most often seek to become a part of a particular school community because they embrace, believe in, and promote shared core values.

During the years I was at the Alliance Academy International (AAI), in Quito, Ecuador, I witnessed a major transition in the demographics of families enrolling their children. The school was founded in 1929 to serve the missionary community, and for decades, the great majority of students attending the school were children of North American missionaries. As more and more missionaries came to serve in the region, and as mission organizations and denominations in the region grew in size and presence (e.g. HCJB Radio, The C&MA, Wycliffe Bible Translators, etc.), the population of missionary kids (MKs) ballooned, as did the enrollment of the school. Right up into the 1990s this demographic held true.

In the 1990s, however, the mission organizations and denominations, which had supported such a large presence in Ecuador, shifted their focus away from Latin America. The new passion for reaching populations living in the 10/40 Window resulted in the reallocation of major resources and mission personnel. This resulted in a mass exodus of missionary families from Quito.[5]

I share this background as an example of internal motivation. Up into the 1990s, most of the school’s teachers came to serve in the role of investing in the lives of MKs. When the missionary community began to shrink, the leadership of the school had to decide whether to close their doors or expand their clientele. Therefore, in order for the school to survive, their clientele changed dramatically. The school transitioned from primarily a school for MKs to an international school for the children of expats and nationals. This created a crisis of internal motivation for many teachers as the school was no longer predominantly populated with the students they had a passion for teaching.

Within fifteen years, nearly all the teachers who had arrived in Ecuador with the motivation to teach MKs moved on. The school’s focus and passion was still to influence students, their families, the Quito community, and the world for Jesus Christ. However, those objectives are now accomplished through a program of open enrollment where a very large percentage of their students and families are from non-Christian homes.[6] This new reality is exactly what motivated me to serve at the school, and is a defining element of what draws many of the current faculty and staff. They have the opportunity to freely teach and operate from a Biblical worldview in a school populated with over thirty nationalities, representing many differing faith and cultural backgrounds. AAI educators view themselves as being a part of international missions, as every day the world comes to them! This objective creates strong internal motivation. Connecting their shared passion to other Theory Y assumptions is one of the keys to keeping the troops motivated and inspired.

Believing that commitment to objectives is a key component of worker motivation and productivity, these school leaders devote considerable time and effort to creating a school culture that all staff members can and usually do feel committed to. Rather than coercing employees to maximize their productivity, a Theory Y leader uses recognition, responsibility, and achievement to motivate employees to produce.[7]

Optimizers intentionally populate their schools with employees who share their core values, are passionate about the school’s current and present mission, and embrace the school’s methodology. When these elements are in place internal motivation is present. This frequently results in innovations by the faculty and staff to fulfill the school’s mission and vision creatively.

This does not mean that school leaders should ignore providing external motivation. Opportunities for external motivation should be embraced within settings such as training events, classroom observations, annual reviews, community events, or teacher lounge one-on-ones. Trusted leaders continually reflect on how they positively inspire all stakeholders at every opportunity. The trusted leader optimizes these opportunities for inspiration most effectively through positive reinforcements, care, and extended trust. “Ultimately, leadership is about love. To become the best leader you can be, you must fall in love with leading, with the purpose you serve, and the people with whom you work in fulfilling that purpose.”[8]

When you extend trust to people, your expectations of them meld with your belief in them, and the combination inspires success… What is expected of people will probably be what they aspire to. A person who senses low expectations will aim low. A person who senses high expectations, as well as support and trust, will aim high and most likely fulfill more potential.[9]

One additional and important observation about the responsibility of the trusted school leader as Optimizer is made by Robert Marzano. “The downfall of low-performing schools is not their lack of effort and motivation; rather, it is poor decisions regarding what to work on. So the problem in low-performing schools is not getting people to work, it is getting people to do the right work.”[10]

©2017 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.


[1] Gorton and Alston, School Leadership and Administration, 8.

[2] Hoy and Miskel, Educational Administration, 17, Kindle.

[3] Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise: Annotated Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), Kindle.

[4] Ibid., 596-598, Kindle.

[5] In a recent one-on-one interview with Graham Bulmer, former Director of HCJB Latin America, he estimated that missionaries based in Quito, Ecuador peaked in the 1990’s at well over 1,400 compared to the present time, which numbers between 100 to 150 missionaries.

[6] “Open enrollment” refers to students of any faith background being permitted to attend the school, as opposed to “covenant enrollment” where students and/or parents must sign a statement of faith.

[7] Fiore, Introduction to Educational Administration, 682-685, Kindle.

[8] DuFour and Marzano, Leaders of Learning, 3265-3269, Kindle.

[9] Horsager, The Trust Edge, 2998, Kindle.

[10] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 1368-1370, Kindle.

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