DOUGLAS McGregor (1906-1964) is best known for his theoretical assumptions on Theory X and Theory Y – on how to understand the motivation of people.
You’re a Theory X manager if you have a negative belief that your workers have very little ambition, dislike work, want to avoid responsibility, and therefore – must be closely supervised.
On the other hand, you’re a Theory Y manager if you have a positive assumption that workers enjoy work, seek out and accept responsibility, and exercise self-direction and initiative, so that they don’t need close monitoring.
McGregor, who was a management professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, believed that Theory Y was the best everyday-everywhere approach for every people manager. In his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, he advocated that all workers must be allowed to participate in problem-solving and decision-making (normally reserved for managers), be given challenging tasks to maximize their contribution, as well as motivation at the same time.
The book was voted the fourth most influential management book of the 20th century in a poll of the Fellows of the Academy of Management.
While it’s easy to understand McGregor, it has become difficult for many managers to implement both Theories X and Y in the real world. At most, we see only Theory X being practiced every day because of the proliferation of command-and-control managers, who think they’re God’s worthy gift to mankind, tasked to rein in recalcitrant workers.
Sometimes, we think of it as a chicken-and-egg situation. Which came first – toxic managers or their lazy workers? Probably, the best philosophical answer could be found in Haruki Murakami’s acceptance speech of his Jerusalem Prize in 2009:
“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals . . .
“We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us – create who we are. It is we who created the system.”
In other words, no matter how “hard and high a wall” management is, millions of us toiling every day for the minimum wage are represented by “a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg” who must be respected and nurtured to become a productive and loyal member of any organization.
Now, let’s move on to the practical side of things. The “hard, high wall” of management wants all eggs (workers) to be motivated to work hard. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, what’s the best approach to motivate workers to deliver the best results that are satisfactory to management?
Enter muda-tori – a Japanese management system, which focuses on the never-ending elimination, if not reduction, of operational wastes, with the active participation of the workers toward bringing a sense of joy and pride into the workforce, according to Hitoshi Yamada in his book “Forging a Kaizen Culture” (2011).
Muda-tori is like shooting two birds (or more) with one stone, which may have originated from the extensive work of W. Edwards Deming (1990-1993), who taught the dynamism of quality and productivity improvement to the Japanese. The original American idea of continual improvement of Plan-Do-Check-Act of Walter Shewhart (1891-1967) was revised by Deming to become Plan-Do-Study-Act and became what is known today as Kaizen (for the Japanese) and Lean (for the West).
Forget Six Sigma that promotes elitism with its belt program. There is no better way but to motivate the workers as an army of problem-solvers who would continue to define and eliminate wastage in the workplace. It can be in the form of quality circles or individual suggestion programs to assist the employees achieve their full potential and gain recognition for it.
There’s one lesson here. Meaningless and mechanical task brings only meaningless performance. If management fails to empower or engage their workers, then chances are – wittingly or unwittingly, it is wearing a Theory X hat.
Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources and total quality management. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.