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I’m in a Theory X Team, Get Me Out Of Here!

For 20 years, ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” has been a staple of the UK pre-Christmas entertainment schedules. A group of celebrities are isolated from society, originally in the Australian jungle, but in 2020 in a Welsh castle. They participate in trials and are eventually voted out one by one by the public until there is a winner. The whole thing is televised, and viewers delight in their discomfort, watch them participate in gruelling trials, and enjoy the stories they tell as they try to cope with the boredom

However, another story is also being told – particularly with the 2020 cast – and it is relevant to anyone working with agile teams or seeking to improve their team’s performance. It is a case study in creating self-organising teams with flat hierarchies and clear goals that quickly succeed – and then how to break those teams.

Forming the team

When the show begins, although their activities are controlled by the producers, the campmates have a lot of autonomy over how they behave. Camp tasks must be completed – collecting fuel, cooking meals, cleaning up, etc. – but how they do that and who does it is up to them. 

Specific campmates are assigned trials to complete in order to win better food or treats for camp. Those doing the trials get great support from the whole team, sharing experiences of previous trials and providing encouragement. When trials don’t go well, the team are supportive, focusing more on how they can improve next time rather than criticising individuals (though there can be some behind-the-scenes complaining!).

They are behaving as an ideal team. Bound together by common goals (keep the camp going and win better food and treats), they self-organise with their autonomy, accept and work within their constraints, and work together to create a supportive and safe environment that helps them succeed. 

Theory Y Teams

This behaviour feels like the Theory Y team described by social psychologist Douglas McGregor in his influential 1960 book: “The Human Side of Enterprise”. He describes two approaches to managing teams based on differing assumptions of the team members. Theory Y brings better performance and assumes that: 

  • Work can be as natural and as enjoyable as play.
  • People don’t require external control or threat of punishment in order to apply self-control and self-direction to achieve organisational objectives.
  • Commitment to the objective is part of the reward, not just achieving the goal.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
  • Most people have the capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity to solve problems.

Leading in a Theory Y way requires providing the team with clear objectives and the resources to achieve them. Then stepping back, letting the team work out what to do and trusting them to deliver. It is a very agile approach.

A Different Kind of Team – Theory X

However, after a week or so, the rules change. A camp leader is appointed, and the jobs of the camp are strictly segregated. The leader must appoint people to roles without consulting them, and only people assigned to those roles can do them. So, if the fire is going out, it is forbidden for anyone other than the fire team to add fuel. The campmates police these rules. This demonstrates McGregor’s Theory X assumptions: 

  • The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility, is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else. 
  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he/she can.
  • Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.

What is most interesting is the changes in the behaviour of the campmates when the new rules are imposed. Very quickly, they shift from working well together, trusting and supporting one another and being forgiving of mistakes. They become critical of one others’ performance, less tolerant of one another and resentful toward those doing jobs they may prefer, even though they know it’s a game show and that job allocations were assigned and not chosen. 

Get Me Out Of Here!

This leads to the performance of the team declining. People become more afraid of failure. This increases stress levels during tasks, leading to poorer performance. The atmosphere in the camp shifts, people isolate themselves more and morale drops. It is not a pleasant place to be. Just getting by almost becomes a trial in itself.

And, of course, these are the same people that formed a high-performing team just a day previously. It shows the profound impact that changes in management can have on team behaviour. How even good teams can degrade their performance when the people and the work are the same, and all that has changed is the management around them.

These problems can be mitigated by good leadership. When the leader acts with humility, compassion and transparency, even with the constraints of the Theory X assumptions, the camp can recover, and we often see this happen on the show.

This Happens in Agile Teams Too

We also see these behaviours in agile teams. Sometimes a team’s product starts to get the attention of the business or starts to build a user base. The management started to get nervous about the team ‘managing themselves’ and started to offer ‘support’. Perhaps a Project or Delivery Manager to help them, or a senior executive starts to want progress updates and to offer advice. Or perhaps a more structured approach like SAFe is proposed since the product is more ‘important’ now.

These interventions will cause the team to respond the same way as the campmates – the loss of autonomy and increased constraints will cause them to change and their performance to drop. In the worst cases, this leads to further interventions that make the situation worse, and the spiral continues. Good leaders recognise this and allow successful teams to continue being successful by carrying on as they are and don’t seek to control them. 

So, although ‘I’m A Celebrity’ isn’t meant to educate us on team leadership, by looking beyond the superficial, it can teach us more than just which parts of an animal are actually edible or whether snakes or spiders are more terrifying.