Monday, 8 February 2010

Give Theory Y a chance

It is 50 years since Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he put forward his Theory X and Theory Y view of assumptions that underpin managers’ motivational behaviour in relation to other employees. I hoped - no doubt along with many others - that organisation cultures based on Theory X (‘you cannot trust people’ etc.) would gradually wither, and the bright uplands of Theory Y would come to dominate the employment landscape. But Theory X never went away, particularly in hard times when the call is for higher productivity.

We had a taste of this last week. A report on public-sector people management from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) was covered in the Guardian (‘Will the message sink in this time?’, 03 February 2010). It said ‘Line managers and supervisors in particular lack the people management skills that will be necessary to get more out of their staff …’ The formula sounds horribly dated. Workers are not working hard enough. It is managers’ job to make them work harder. But the managers (who may be working hard enough) lack people-management skills. The answer is to provide them with more training. Hands up everyone who shares this analysis. ‘Them and us’ refuses to die. The easy appeal for more training is wheeled out again, but it never solves the problem and never can, as any systems thinker will tell you.

What is the root problem in this analytical morass? Answer: the assumption that the organisation is the same as the people. Hence, better ‘people management’ is assumed to equate with a better-run organisation. But you cannot turn an organisation on by turning the people on. If the fishtank is no longer the fine attraction it once was, clean up what surrounds the fish rather than polishing the fish in the same old dirty water. ‘People management’ keeps taking our gaze back to the fish. If they are sluggish, management’s job is to improve their system. Give Theory Y a chance!