Tackling issues with the magic of Theory Y

I’m working with a group of people attempting to tackle an on-going organisational goal; to recruit great people to staff-up our growing number of development teams, so we can meet the aims of the business.

In Redgate’s development division, we have to do a lot of interviewing to meet this goal. Probably 12-15 a week, at peak times. Our colleagues in the People Team (our more humane sounding Human Resources department) have do a lot of candidate and agency communications, meeting wrangling and cat herding of interviewers to help us achieve this. A lot of cat herding.

Development has to weave the needs of interviewing into the daily life and work of a busy product team. A lot of weaving. Throughout the division interviewing is regarded as a very important task. In fact, we expect every software engineer with over 6 months service to get involved in the recruitment of their future colleagues. But interviewing is not as much fun as writing code and we’ve cultivate such strong product team identities developers never want to let their comrades down on day-to-day work. Hence the difficulties in stepping away to do interviews.

Despite our ongoing efforts to smooth the management of interviews and interviewers, which now includes an interview rota to ensure that the load on interviewers is restricted to a single week every couple of months, organising interviewers to cover the many interviews we have per week remains a Sisyphean task. This is because our designated interviewers, spread out across our development teams, have other stuff going on, other commitments to meet and a hankering to build software. So they sometimes say “no” to interviewing requests, unaware of their contribution to scheduling difficulties.

We’re experimenting to see if we can improve this situation, specifically how we continue to make the interviewing load fair and avoid disrupting our product teams too much but stop making the People Team’s task so onerous. As I’m responsible for the people and teams in the development organisation, I’m rightly involved in solving this problem.

What are Theory X and Theory Y?

From WikipediaTheory X and Theory Y are theories of human work motivation and management. They were created by Douglas McGregor while he was working at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1950s, and developed further in the 1960s. The two theories proposed by McGregor describe contrasting models of workforce motivation. Theory X explains the importance of heightened supervision, external rewards, and penalties, while Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision.

A Theory X approach to this problem is to be directive and autocratic with our interviewers (which, I openly admit may be super effective in terms of getting interviews done). We could make it abundantly clear that our interviewers are expected to accept, without dissent, any interview bookings that turn-up in their calendars. We could watch for dysfunction, like the Eye of Sauron, and personally hold people’s feet to the fire should they push back on any interview request. I’m writing in pejorative terms, obviously – but you get the flavour of approach I am identifying; you put your foot down.

The unfortunate side-effects of that kind of directive approach is that for the interviewer, interviewing becomes a task they resent, reasonable requests and preferences will be impossible to accommodate and motivation to do a good job reduces. They will also remain unaware of any difficulties being experienced by the People Team, because they do not need to meaningfully interact with them. Also, my life will involve micro-managing people and moaning at them, which does not scale and sucks for everyone – me definitely included. Importantly, we all lose focus on the goal of the endeavour; to bring great new people into the company.

Instead or embracing Theory X, we are experimenting with a Theory Y approach. To treat the group of people involved in organising and running interviews in a given week as a self-organising, collaborative team who genuinely want to do the right thing. To encourage them to be open and honest about the pressures, pain and preferences we each have when tackling the job. To focus on the team’s goal of performing brilliant interviews to identify great new people to work with, and to encourage the team to hold each other accountable for contributing to that goal. This approach gives people more responsibility, leads them towards having more empathy for others and grows better behaviours, but this kind of environment can be difficult to cultivate.


We’ve applied this approach for a week and logistically it has worked ok. In the run-up to the week, the People Team booked a load of interviews with candidates but did not assign interviewers to the sessions. We had a kick-off meeting on Monday morning where all the interviewers on the rota for the week came together to assign themselves to the interviews as they saw fit. They also allocated themselves a day of the week where they could be “on call” to cover any interviews that came up at shorter notice.

The Monday kick-off was a bit quieter and more awkward than I would have liked, but it was our first go and our interviewers were working out how all this was meant to work.  We had a retrospective on the Thursday and found a few areas we should improve for next week. But it worked and it was less of a pain for the People Team than it has been recently and the interviewers seemed content too. All the pre-planned interviews happened, some shorter notice sessions were also successfully covered and some great candidates were progressed to the next stage.

However, the real magic of Theory Y was illustrated in an interaction in the retro when one of the interviewers reflected stoically that they were booked on 3 interviews in a row on Friday and that was going to be really tough, because of the prep and write-up times involved too. He said that this was probably going to mean he would not be at his best by the time it came to the final interview. One of the other members of the interview team piped-up, “Oh, that’s not fair – I can take one of those off you. Let me do the 9:30 one, as I’ve only done one interview all week”. I almost hugged him, but that would have been weird. He showed empathy for his team mate, the group organised a better approach that was fairer and more likely to meet the goal. No attention from the Eye of Sauron or feet holding to fires was necessary.

To be honest, I have reflected that cultivating empathy and accountability in a transient rota-based team might also be a Sisyphean task as each week we’ll start from scratch. It could be that simply improving openness of communication between all parties may be enough to improve interview scheduling. However, we’ll continue the experiment next week, and whether we continue with this exact approach or not, I hope we’ll always favour Theory Y as we look to improve how we work.

Update: Find out what happened with the experiment in this next exciting installment… Was our self-organising interview team experiment a success?

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