Monthly Archive: June 2015

Why do companies persist with Theory X policy-making?

I’ve had a mixed bag of conversations this week, alternating between organisations I would classify as progressive, by which I mean they have the philosophical chops to be able to move forward, and those that are so steeply mired in a Theory X-based bully culture that they can’t even see why they’re limiting their own way ahead.

I feel so naive at times; I am literally baffled why a group of people would be able to operate for more than a day under the emotional and intellectual strain that some companies slather themselves with so lavishly.

It has been 55 years since professor Douglas McGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he described his Theory X (in which people need to be controlled if they’re to achieve anything at all) and Theory Y (in which people are ambitious and self-motivated and thrive well under a high degree of freedom) hypotheses.

That’s one hell of a long time. Long enough for the ideas to have spread. This was after all, a best-selling book.

But ideas have to fire up a receptive mind if they’re to grow into anything and as I keep discovering, there aren’t enough of those out there.

A large part of the work that we do at Happy Sandpit, my organisational culture consultancy, is helping companies to formulate a set of deep-seated Core Values that fully describe them. Not the total bloody nonsense most companies have on their walls, but Values that are inherent and important and worth defending with blood if necessary.

The process of getting to them is one of uncovering the true philosophical mindset that guides that particular organisation and the quickest way to get to that, because it’s clear that most organisations have no idea how misaligned their words and actions actually are, is to examine the company through the artefact of its policies.

Most company policies are just so much protectionist bullshit they shouldn’t exist at all. They were written into law for that particular company not because they felt they were under siege and needed to protect themselves against threatening behaviour, but because some Theory X-fuelled jerk was given the right to start making amendments.

Enforced laws become habits and over time, Theory X companies watch with perplexity as innovators, free-thinkers, and really talented personnel fail to stick around more than a few months without a ridiculous package of salary and perks to keep them chained down.

But to me the reason is simple. I’ve always been a Theory Y thinker. People are good and want to do good things. Where management of individual transgressors can resolve a problem, there’s no need to create a policy to restrict the movement of the entire group.

It’s a more challenging response, because it means you actually have to do some work in understanding how the individuals that comprise your organisation can play out their best role. And I believe it is as clear as daylight that organisations that do this, are the magnets for real talent.

Is your organisation Theory X or Theory Y? Are you sure? Read the policy book. You could be in for a shock.