September 28, 2008

Theory Y: Student Empowerment

Which one of these statements do you believe to be most true?

  1. Students will naturally find the path of least resistance. Students need to be closely supervised, and the teacher's job is to constantly make sure they are on task and doing things the way the teacher wants them done. When behaviorist approaches such as operant conditioning are used, the student's behavior will most closely align with the teacher's goals.

  2. When students are given relevant goals and the opportunity to make decisions on their own without overdue teacher meddling, students tend to be ambitious and self-directed. They gladly accept greater responsibility and get a greater sense of accomplishment and ownership from their work. A teacher's job is to hold students accountable for goals, but not to constantly micromanage the student's work.

If you agree with the first one, you follow Douglas McGregor's Theory X. If you agree with the second one, you follow Theory Y. McGregor's theory posits that both management techniques can be used in different situations. I've had much better results following Theory Y.

Theory Y in Action
I'm the DECA advisor at my school, and I had a huge recruiting challenge. Last year, there were 22 students in the organizations. This fall, the only ones who remained were 13 seniors. When these seniors graduate this year, that would leave no one. Advising DECA is part of my contract, so this was a big deal to me. I have a big stake in making sure this organization continues to be successful; if it doesn't, I don't get paid.

So I had to do a whole bunch of recruiting. With the stakes this high, is this something I could trust the students to do on their own? Should I let them organize a recruiting drive, risking that they'll screw up, or if I want it done right, should I do it myself? Remember, the consequence of failure was losing my job, or at least part of it.

The decision was easy for me. Based my experience in several organizations I've been involved with, most notably Civil Air Patrol, leaders get better results when they use Theory Y to empower their subordinates. I knew that the 13 students would do a better job at organizing a recruiting drive than I could myself. After meeting these students the first week of school and seeing how smart, motivated, and self-directed they were, my decision was solidified.

We started by setting goals for the recruiting drive, delegating each goal to a different person, and setting deadlines for the goals. I provided some guidance in the goal setting, but after that, I essentially checked out and left the students to their own devices.

Management Style
A few deadlines slipped and I helped the students come up with plans for corrective action. I held students accountable for their goals, but I didn't constantly look over their shoulders. They had complete creative license to do this recruiting drive the way they wanted to.

The Results

We held our informational meeting for new members this week. The students kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming! In all, we increased our membership by 400% from last year! The group's morale is in great shape, and the excitement level of the students is stratospheric. I'm really looking forward to working with this group.

DECA is a student-run organization. The students are the leaders. It's their organization, and they deserve a sense of ownership in it. I have some specific goals for the group and some new ideas; I'll be providing some guidance and oversight, but it's basically their ship to run. With the student president and other officers we have this year, the group is under some very capable leadership.

Is It Really That Easy?
Theory Y is clearly the superior approach to leading an organization, but you can't just let go of the reins completely. You need to keep in mind some basic leadership principles which are completely beyond the scope of what I can write today.

P.S. Don't Stop Now
I'm slightly afraid of the "resting on our laurels" syndrome. Recruiting is not enough; retention is equally important. We need to make this an organization that the members want to stay in and keep coming back to. We'll be putting a lot of work into that in the upcoming weeks and months. Theory Y and student empowerment will be our methods. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

sus said...


Quite agree with you. We do tend to underestimate our students and seemed surprised when they seem to reach the goals that we thought were too much for them.