Beavers, Rats, and Your Workforce

Beavers are remarkable creatures. Set one loose near a creek or small stream, and without any instruction or invitation, she’ll immediately set to work cutting down trees and building a damn. Come back in a very short time, you’ll find your woodland brook has morphed into a pond, with a cozy-looking lodge in the middle, well out of harm’s way. Beavers are some of the most industrious, self-motivated creatures under the sun.

Rats are another story entirely. They’re as sneaky and surly as they are lazy. The only way to get them to do what you want is to pen them in, control their options very closely, and offer them enticements for performing their duties. Watch it, though: reward them too generously, and they’re sure to slack off until the reward is all gone and they’re hungry again.

Leaders, in my first post in this series I asked you to take a ten-second quiz to uncover your worldview. Basically, do you think people are generally self-motivated beavers, or troublesome rats?

The thing is, you don’t even have to tell me. All I have to do is look at your organization, and I can tell you how you feel about human nature. Is your company a stifling bureaucracy, with reams of rules and policies and procedures to tightly control your people? If so, you see people as shifty rats.

Or is your organization more open, more democratically-led, with few policies but plenty of support to enable your people to thrive at what they already want to do, which is build your business and delight your customers (and thus your stockholders)? If that describes your company, then it’s clear you see people as beavers.


In 1960, Professor Douglas McGregor of MIT published “The Human Side of Management,” introducing what he called Theory X and Theory Y. Basically, leaders who ascribe to Theory X see people as rats, and treat them accordingly. Leaders who follow Theory Y believe that people are beavers, which you can tell from how these leaders manage.

I personally find it hard to remember if X is good and Y is bad, or vice-verse, plus I notice people’s eyes glaze over every time I launch into an X/Y discussion, so I came up with the rats and beavers as more user-friendly. Please, let me know in the comments if this works for you.


Here’s your link to part one in this three-part series about your Leadership Worldview. Next time, we’ll wrap up this three-post series with “The Biggest Caveat Ever!” Stay tuned!

Graphic by Husam Elfaki

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • Steve Borek

    As I mentioned in a previous post, I think people like to do good work. Though some bring a major league game and others bring Triple A, Double A, and Single A.

    The way the leader shows up will determine the atmosphere of your company. If you’ve got a rat leader, you’ll probably have lots of turnover because the leaders style won’t be in alignment with the values of the team.

    Conversely, if you’re a beaver leader (smiling as I typed that) you’re modeling the way for the team. They might not all be eager beavers (smiling again), yet as leader you’re letting them know the standard you expect.

    • Ted Coine

      The perils of a philosophy major. I was told it was a good major for pre-law or pre-bartending. I’ve also found was helpful for pre-leadership. :)

  • Steve Borek

    Ha! Who’s on first! :)

    My head be spinning Ted.

  • Martin Fenwick

    The complications come when the reality of leading an organisation comes to play. There is no such single thing as ‘organisation’, there are just ‘many types of people’ that live within the environment of the organisation. Of course leaders can be biased towards ‘rat management’ or ‘beaver management’ in their style and tendency, however the real problems start when a beaver manager is given rats to manage just as much as when a rat manager is given beavers. The outcome of thes combinations are obvious. Mostly a leade will have some of each, and managing as if they were all the same is a problem too. Yes, a leader has to set the tone but whether we like it or not some people need and want more rules than others. Some people crave the freedom of beavers but don’t have the capacity and are a risk if they are managed as such (the damn breaks). There are also more types of enployee than this! A leader needs to manage in a flexible style that adapts based on the people they have around them and not just their own preference or with a sweeping assumption that ‘the organisation’ all needs managed the same way.

  • Ted Coine

    Love it, Steve! I agree whole-heartedly.

    There are a few moving parts here, for sure. Are the workers in reality rats or beavers? Is the leader a rat or a beaver? And how does the leader SEE his people: as rats, or as beavers?

    Give me a beaver leader who sees his people as beavers, and chances are those people are indeed beavers. That is how you grow a successful business!

  • Ted Coine


    Outstanding point. One thing that is key to remember in all this is Professor McGregor’s original point: that this is all about the outlook of the manager (and culturally, about the management of the organization) rather than about what is really the case with the employees’ personalities. If management sees employees as vile rats or naughty children, it will lead by restrictive controls. Not ironically, responsible go-getters will find those rules too stifling, and will leave, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy for management which was utterly avoidable. The org’s competitors love when this happens!

    You also make another great observation I don’t want to gloss over: that even high-quality, self-motivated people need more guidance at some point in their careers. I myself lived that; I think we all do. Whenever you’re new in an org, you want to know what is expected of you. “How do I know when I’m making my boss glad she hired me?” is a natural question any responsible worker will ask. But it’s not forbiddingly difficult to set clear expectations without being controlling.

    A big part of this comes from the spirit in which things are done, rather than a difference in practices. That is why my question is always Why, like a young child. Why do you have this policy? Why do you track this information? Who does that serve? Who gains? What inspired it in the first place?

    That one question, “Why,” asked relentlessly, can save a management team a lot of heartache in lost talent.

    Thanks for weighing in, Martin. You helped me stretch my thinking this morning!

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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