Are you a Thermostat or a Thermometer?

Jim Mortensen
July 27, 2021

My dad is a retired electrical engineer, and I inherited the “engineer” gene from him. 

He tells the story that when I was a young boy he caught me standing on a chair with a screwdriver in hand, taking apart the thermostat which controlled heating in our home. I was apparently very curious to know how a thermostat (or any device) worked…

Some years later and as an experienced CTO and now, leadership coach, I’d like to explain the difference between thermostats and thermometers and more importantly for the context of this audience, how it applies to leadership and the teams we lead.

First, An Explanation …

A thermometer is a device that measures temperature and provides a means of reporting this temperature in a meaningful way.

A thermostat is a device that likewise measures temperature but then performs actions so that the temperature is maintained near a desired level.

A thermometer is primarily acted upon and just reports the temperature, while a thermostat’s primary function is to act upon the measured temperature and adjust it to the desired level.

Now, How It Connects To Leadership 

As humans, we are blessed with the capacity and power of independent action.

We are agents to act and not merely objects to be acted upon.

You can likely identify those on your team who are more like a thermometer, those who are more like thermostats, and those who flip flop between thermometer and thermostat, depending on the circumstance.

While there is clear value in a thermometer, I value a thermostat more.

As a CTO, I value members of the team who keep me informed of all significant developments in my domain in a timely fashion, whether it be good news or bad news.

However, members of the team who go beyond just keeping me informed and who proactively act to solve issues are valued even more.

While most engineers (and technical team members) inherently like to fix technical issues, they are not always naturally adept at independently resolving issues outside the technical domain or issues they consider to be outside their control.

As a technical leader, it is your responsibility to help your team members become thermostats instead of thermometers.

You have likely achieved your role as leader in part due to being more thermostat than thermometer.

If you are a new CTO or technical leader, you may still be adjusting to your new role and understanding what authority your role has.

As a result, you may sometimes fall back into thermometer mode, diligently keeping the CEO or your manager informed of significant issues, but not feeling comfortable with taking independent action without prior approval from the CEO or your manager.

In order to more effectively help your team become thermostats, it is helpful to understand the circumstances that cause you to behave more like a thermometer than a thermostat as they are often the same as those of your direct reports.

As a leader you need to know what goes on in your domain and be informed by your direct reports of all significant developments.

Likewise, your own manager needs to know what goes on in his or her domain and be informed of all significant developments.

But, if you primarily just inform (report temperature) without taking independent action to resolve issues (change the temperature), you are more like a thermometer than a thermostat.

You have likely heard of the old rule of “don’t bring up a problem unless you have a solution.” – which is essentially stating that you should be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

Note that a thermostat which significantly delays taking action after knowing the temperature is not at the desired level, is not a very good thermostat.

It’s important to timely report all significant problems to your manager even if you don’t know the cause or have a solution to the problem, but you should have a plan of action already in progress.

I prefer to restate that old rule as “don’t bring up a problem unless you have a proposed solution or a plan of action.”

In my experience a common reason for team members and leaders to be thermometers is the perception that an issue is outside of their control, not part of their responsibilities, or above their pay grade.

While this may be somewhat true, it is rarely 100% true.

I recently read an article that referenced the concept of 15% Solutions. It promotes a focus on what each person has the freedom and resources to do now, rather than what they cannot change.

15% Solutions shows that “there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful.” Regardless of the situation we have the ability to be agents to act and not just be an object to be acted upon, even if our own actions amount to just 15% of a solution.

In Summary …

We each have the capacity and power of independent action. 

We each have the capacity to be thermostats that primarily act, and not merely be thermometers that are acted upon

As technical leaders, it is our responsibility to create more thermostats in our teams. 

As we build teams with a “thermostat attitude” and lead by example with our own “thermostat attitude,” our individual 15% Solutions become 100% team solutions. 

A team full of thermostat members is much more effective than a team with just a thermostat leader.


Article written by Jim Mortensen, Fractional CTO/COO, Experienced Leadership Coach including CTO Academy Members based around the world.

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