Human Change by Design:

Excerpts from a conversation with

Robert R. Blake, Ph.D.

by Joe Flower

This article appeared in the Healthcare Forum Journal, July-August 1992, Vol. 35, #4

International Copyright 1992 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved


For forty years, Robert Blake has been trying to capture human interactions in numbers and graphs - a quixotic attempt, it would seem, a try at writing on clouds. Yet his Grid system - developed with his sidekick Jane Mouton, and marketed through their company Scientific Methods since 1961 - actually does help people who are not steeped in psychology to see themselves and those they work with more clearly, to understand their interactions, and identify the sources of disruptions, delays, resistance, and conflicts.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the Grid rose out his experience with Esso (now Exxon) - a company built on hydrocarbons, on exchange rates and contracts, a company not known for its warm, fuzzy human qualities, or its tolerance for the bafflingly inexact twists and turns of the human personality.

What Blake and Mouton did, essentially, was to create a three-dimensional model by focussing on the three measurable dimensions that have the greatest effect on the ways people work - their concern for productivity, their concern for people, and their motivation. They put concern for production along the "x" baseline, on a scale from one to nine, with nine high. The concern for people went on the "y" scale, also from one to nine. Motivation became the third dimension, the "z" scale, running from negative (motivated by fear) to the positive (motivated by desire).

Let's take two extremes as examples: (1,9+) describes a "people-pleaser" who cares litttle for production, and operates wholly from a desire to be loved. On the other hand, (9,1-) describes a whip-cracker who cares nothing about people, and operates in fear of something going wrong. The Grid system provides a framework for exploring what happens when a 9,1+, say, needs something from a 1,1-. The Grid becomes a lens through which people can see themselves and their organizations more clearly.

Over the years, Blake and Mouton identified two additional styles, both rather common, that seem to combine various Grid positions. The "paternalist" style combines the whip-cracking 1,9 and the people-pleasing 9,1, depending the response of the subordinate. A subordinate that cooperates is rewarded with a "people-pleasing" relationship; one that doesn't is subjected to the whip. The "opportunist," on the other hand, is a chameleon, taking on whatever Grid style seems appropriate for the interaction of the moment, never revealing his or her own true feelings.

Blake and Mouton (who died in 1987), along with various co-authors, have explored the Grid and its uses in a fountain of work. Blake's publications on the Grid and other matters runs to 45 books, 115 chapters in anthologies, 214 articles and half a dozen monographs stretching back to 1945. The latest book, and probably the most useful for executives who want to explore the usefulness of the Grid idea, is Leadership Dilemmas - Grid Solutions (1991, with Anne Adams McCanse). Blake is now chairman emeritus of Scientific Methods, in Austin, Texas.

Recently we asked Dr. Blake to take us through the nuts and bolts of how an organization would put the Grid system into practice.


Filling a need

The idea of the Grid began when I was working as a consultant at Exxon over thirty years ago. The desperate need was for a comprehensive formulation of leadership styles. Douglas MacGregor had a bipolar design that ran between x and y. This was an inadequate formulation of all of the variations - everything that's not y is not x, by a long shot. It didn't satisfy our concept of what we were seeing every day.

Other theorists had two variables, such as consideration and structure. This was a species of paternalism: I structure your work and then I show you high consideration. I tell you what to do and you comply; in appreciation of your compliance I give you rewards. If you don't comply then you're in trouble, because I as the paternalist don't tolerate anyone challenging me or being stronger than myself. By definition the paternalist is oriented toward controlling the situation, but not being harsh about it. Paternalism is the predominant management theory, worldwide. It's very Pavlovian, and those theories were unsatisfactory for us. So we buiilt our own.

How the Grid works

In the Grid theory, we represent working styles in a three-dimensional model. The horizontal axis is concerned with production, in degrees from one to nine. Nine would be a high amount of concern for achieving results, for getting performance; one would be the lowest amount of concern. At right angles to that, the Grid displays concern for people. This is also on a nine-point scale with nine high. The reason you have to have a people axis is that managers achieve things indirectly. They don't produce nuts and bolts themselves, they organize others so that the production line can be productive.

Third dimension - motivation

The third dimension is critical: it's motivation. It's a bipolar scale, running from a minus motivation (below the Grid) through neutral to a plus motivation (above the Grid). The negative motivations are driven by fear, the positive ones by desire. The 9,1 corner, for instance, is down to the lower right - very high on concern for production, little or no concern for people. At that corner, 9,1+ illustrates the desire for control and mastery - I want it to be recognized that I am in control, I tell you what to do, and you execute precisely to my requirements. I want you to recognize that you are in my hands, so that I have no question but that I've dominated the situation in which you appear.

At the same corner, 9,1- represents a fear of failure. These two work together. If I need control I rely to the most limited degree possible on you, because you're liable to screw up and the failure will reflect on me.

What the third dimension does is clarify the motivation underlying the grid style. It's proven to be very valuable.

Most of us would not be self-conscious enough to be able to place ourselves on such a Grid. This is the heart of change. If you're unable to face yourself objectively, you place yourself in the 9,9 corner, deeply concerned for production but equally concerned about people, which is not where you are in fact. A tremendous amount of self deception enters into this raw, naive self examination. And as long as you are deceiving yourself, any plan of personal change is likely to be invalid.

Measurable self-deception

We deal with this self deception in the Grid seminar. Before you attend the seminar you read the book, and you place yourself on the Grid. At the end of the week-long seminar, when you've had a tremendous amount of feedback and the critiques of other colleagues who have done the same thing, you rate yourself again. We have found that in the pre-work, the original self-ranking, some 80 percent of people accord themselves a 9,9 rating. By the end of the seminar, that 80 percent is down to 20 percent. So there is a 60 percent self-deception factor. It's just not realistic to try to induce change against that magnitude of self-deception. That, in my view, is where much of the change effort totally breaks down.

This is true on a world-wide basis. We have data from over 40 countries - there is variation on that 80 percent, but the variation is a matter of degree, not a matter of direction. It is almost identical in the Soviet Union, and comparable in Britain and across Europe. In Japan, it goes from 50 percent in the pre-work to 15 percent after the seminar. These numbers have been very stable over time.

You need help to accurately place yourself on the Grid. It's not something that you could take a test on. We know that if we could have produced a test, over the years we could have made a killing. But we have never produced a test that would give you valid result. I don't know of any other method to do it accurately besides attending one of our seminars. To the best of my knowledge we are the only ones who have devoted ourselves with rigor and discipline over many years to the conditions that induce change.

Phase one

The Grid system is a multi-phasal approach. Phase one starts with learning the Grid under conditions that permit you to avoid the conflict and tensions of people with whom you are previously acquainted. You are thrown together with seven or eight people who are comparable to you in rank and age and so on, but whom you do not know.

Everything in the Grid system is measured. That is another distinctive feature, to the best of my knowledge. The very first activity in the group is over the contents of the Grid book. You have read the book prior to participating, and you have completed a test over it. So we can measure how much of the Grid knowledge provided in that book you know on entry. Once you join the group, the first activity is to repeat that test, but as a team. So now the team has to argue out which is the best of five answers to each question. In that process you get a result.

We use a particular terminology here that we call "the three Rs:" "R1" is the "resources" you bring to a task. "R2" is the "relationship" through which the resources have to pass. "R3" is the result. R1, the resources, in this case, is the collective knowledge of the group members. R3 is the result that you get out of two hours of comprehensive effort. R2 is the relationship through which the R1 information has to pass to get to R3. When that's done, there's another scoring formula, so you can measure how much of the R1 resources got into the final result. There's a dropoff from 100 percent of the resources on the front side of the experience down to 33 percent that is represented on the R3 side. There's a tremendous dropoff. Now that's interesting in itself, and it says that one of the key problems with people is the capability to be effective in communicating whatever knowledge they have. That involves many things, but let me just illustrate one.

Let's say that the potential perfect score is 50, and you knew 48 of the answers - you were really well prepared. You're up in the 1,9 corner, where you have a low concern for productivity but a very high concern for people. You open your mouth to say that you think the best answer to question one is "C," and somebody crawls down your throat. You're not the kind of person who can stand antagonism. That's why you're such a people-lover in a certain sense, and why you're willing to sacrifice productivity in the interest of acceptance. So you say, "Oh, gee, I must be wrong." You abandon the answer that you were proposing. The team comes in with a score of 25. You had 48 units of knowledge, but the team threw away, or you threw away, 23 points. There were 23 points of knowledge in you that you were unable to get into R3, because of your style.

After all the scoring is done, the team returns to its quarters to critique what happened to each individual's knowledge insofar as the end result was concerned. People point out to you, "You gave up without even coming back at me when I challenged you. Why did you do that?" You're beginning to see that your false 9,9 really is a 1,9. You have such reservations about expressing yourself, about being clear in your advocacy, that you caused team incompetence.

You experience your grid style, in performance, as observed by others. That's key. To my knowledge, we are the only ones who do that sort of thing. Other people say that's mechanical and intellectual, which it is, at one level. But people have a very high self-regard for being appreciated by others, that's the affect side. It's an intellectual, mechanical circumstance that brings out the emotional underpinning of your use of knowledge, of your capacity to contribute.

Near the end of phase 1, on the next-to-last day, each member of the team becomes a secretary to the team while they write seven sentences about your Grid style. They argue them out. You are right there. You're recording on the newsprint the sentence that they create for you in terms of "initiative," and six other sentences, one about "inquiry," one about "advocacy," and so forth. And you listen. You are not invited to participate. People appreciate that - they don't have the need or the opportunity to be defensive. Then, at the end of the writing of the paragraph for you, you have an opportunity to critique it to them. In many of the groups that I have attended, this is one of the most rewarding experiences that people have had in their entire business career - the warmth and attention. The other people in the group have no axe to grind, in the internal company sense. The only reason that they have participated is to be helpful, and it's just a wonderful, warm, rich experience. By that time, they have realized that you're not being helpful when you gild the lily.

Phase Two

Phase 2 becomes possible when everyone in an organization, or in a unit of the organization, has been through the phase 1 group. The next step is for that family team to sit down and repeat the the dynamics of the process. They complete an intellectual activity to see what happens in terms of R1, R2, and R3. At the end, they do two things. One is to write a paragraph under the same conditions as in phase 1. The other is to help you set goals, change your goals, perfect your goals.

These are people who work together, so now they are setting goals about the real problems of real-life work. The boss is in there - it's a replica of work. Obviously, that's very challenging and absorbing, and yet people don't run amok because there is a theory to provide a framework of what is important and what's trivial. That brings up a lot of problems. For effectiveness, this kind of work has to start at the top. When the top does it, it signals the entire organization that it's serious about learning about change, and implimenting change.


Of the six elements I mentioned - initiative, inquiry, and so forth - the most central element, the barrier to the effectiveness of most of the others, is conflict-solving. If a person doesn't have skill in conflict-solving, then he has no chance of managing in a 9,9 way, because he can't confront differences. So we put a great amount of emphasis on conflict-solving. The 9,1, for example, high on productivity at the expense of people, solves problems by suppressing them. The 1,9 person, high on people at the expense of productivity, is into smoothing over differences. The 1,1, low on both scales, deals with conflict by remaining neutral. The 5,5, in the middle on both scales, will seek a compromise. The 9,9, high on both scales, will seek to confront the differences. Paternalism, which combines the 1,9 corner and the 9,1 corner, deals with conflict by not allowing it, by withholding rewards to prevent it from happening.


Intelligence, or I.Q., does not correlate to any of the conditions in the Grid. You can be a brilliant 1,9 - a people-pleaser - and ineffective. You can be a brilliant 9,1 and effective. You can be a dumb 9,1, just bullheaded. As we see it, the Grid, and the style with which a person approaches conflict, really determines the effectiveness with which he or she can use intelligence. That's where the company is throwing away a tremendous amount of good I.Q.

Phase Three

One of the final activities at the end of Phase 2 is for the work team to identify the other teams in the work environment with whom it has relationships, or through which it must work. Some of those relationships are very strained - a relationship almost doesn't exist.

Phase 3 is concerned with inter-group conflict solving. Under these conditions the Grid is used, but in a quite different way. Both groups come together, but they retain their group integrity. Two groups of 12 don't become a 24 who come together, loosen their belts, take off their shoes and shoot the breeze. It's a very organized activity in which each group, working separately, does two things.

First, the task is for each group to write on newsprint the terms of reference that would be present in an ideal relationship with the other group - the ideal conditions for a sound, positive, problem-solving relationship with the other group. Those get exposed, the newsprints put side-by-side, and all 24 study them for the purpose of consolidating them into a single statement of what would be ideal as a basis for cooperation. The fact is that, routinely, they are almost identical. Sometimes one group leaves out something that the other group put in, but it's obviously something of value. There is very little conflict or disagreement as to what the optimal relationship would be, and both groups know it, regardless from which direction they look. That, to me, is very important.

Then they return to their membership group as two separate entities, and describe the actual relationship. When that's done, those two newsprints are again posted in a seminar arrangement. There is usually a gross difference between them. They don't look as though they are describing the same relationship. The goal, however, is once again to bring them together into a single, consolidated statement, to the degree possible. Maybe 75 percent of the descriptions can be worked through, so that each side can understand what the other was really saying, and accepts it as a basis for discussion. The other 25 percent may never come to a consensus.

The next step is a cooperative attempt to answer the question: How do you get from actual to ideal? That's the problem of the relationship: not how to live with the actual, and try to get around it or over it or under it, but to open the channels up to make the relationship one that permits effective problem-solving.

Everything we have done over the last forty years or so is based on ideal-actual comparisons, promoting discrepancies and differences, in order that they can become visible and subject to some kind of problem-solving resolution. In my Ph.D. program I took a lot of philosophy. The concept of ideal thinking came out of Plato - the "platonic ideal." Aristotle, by comparison, was the pragmatic one, the fixer, the tinkerer. It came to us suddenly that, if you put those two bases of thinking aside one another, you've got a very powerful change model.

When all the people that have to live with it, and come to terms with it, do that - put the ideal in direct contrast with the real - you've got a pro-active commitment to making the change.

I have a functional assumption that the way people and organizations operate is something that should and can be made overt, and discussed, and shifted. That's the whole point. If you can't talk and exchange views, and be innovative, and listen to them, how do you change?

Yet in almost all organizations this is a revolutionary idea. The top talks to itself. The middle talks about the top, but doesn't really get into the dynamics of the top. And even the top doesn't often ask itself, what is our style? It's all about content.

Phase Four

Phase four is key. Let's say the top management of a company has been through the first three phases. They've gotten loose, they have opened up interactions. They are confronting conflict. They are not putting up with people who are just hanging on by thin threads. They've got a good operating team at the top.

Phase four is a study, which may go on for a year, that involves designing an ideal company to be run in the future, in comparison with the actual company as it is now being run. This ideal company would not necessarily even have the same customers, or the same products. The real question is: With the financial and other resources that are at the command of the current leadership, how would they best be deployed to make a profit? It could go out of the existing business.

The issue here is that a lot of business people are not business people. They have come up the ladder, but that by no means guarantees that they know how to think conceptually. They may just be opportunists, or they may have fixed ideas, and force the ideas into existence, but that doesn't mean that their ideas are informed or systematically rich.

Once the model is created by the top it gets passed down into the company and people down through a certain level are given a chance to take a crack at it, find the potholes. This does two things. It's brings a lot of intelligence to bear on the design, and it automatically gets the involvement and commitment of the lesser ranks for the effective implimentation of the design when it has been proven to be sound. People are fully prepared to impliment what they understand.

Phase Five

Phase five is implimentation - bringing the ideal model into use. This is carried out by task forces. Each existing unit as currently operated has to pass the test of being included against the ideal model. If it has no chance of inclusion, then the issue is disposition - how to dispose of that unit. That's just good engineering.

Phase Six

Phase six is a stabilization period, in which you keep your eye out for dropping away from the model, doing the easy thing rather than the things that will make the ideal model work.

Many companies go after the first three phases, but not the last three. There's a falloff from each phase to the next one. Executives, by and large, are really quite logical and capable of rational thought, but this is not in the tradition of rational thought. It has a lot of experiential stuff in it. If an ordinary company tried to do phase four as a phase one - tried to do an ideal redesign without dealing with the personality and communications issues in the existing design - they wouldn't get what they want. People who have not done the first three phases are uncomfortable with ideal thinking. Ideal thinking is not in the engineering lexicon. It's not in the financial lexicon.

But I think good psychology and good engineering are indistinguishable. Fundamentally they are techniques for problem-solving, whether it's organizational development or how to put a wheel on a car.

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