The X Factor

29th November 2010 | Posted in Books, Economics, Management

There is an increasing sense of unreality around some HR conversations that I’ve heard recently. It’s made me think about William Beveridge, ‘Father of the Welfare State’ and a 1960’s social psychologist, Douglas McGregor.

Beveridge was a more complex character than his association with the welfare state might suggest. In 1904, he proposed2010-Landscape-Photograph-002‘severely punishing’ parents who failed to feed breakfast to their children. During The Second World War he wanted ‘training camps’ for those ‘malingering’ on subsidence benefits. His biographer, Jose Harris, explains Beveridge’s view that talk of a British work ethic was misplaced. In his opinion, the notion of ‘honest labour’ was a trick of the upper classes to promote industry in their workers. People had no moral duty to offer their labour: it was the role of the State to devise a system that rewarded work. Ian Duncan Smith has obviously been reading the same book.

McGregor is known for his X-Y theory where theory X describes authoritarian management behaviour and theory Y represents more participative management. In McGregor’s world, theory X managers believe that people will avoid work whenever they can; that they must be coerced into organisational effort through threats of punishment; that they prefer to be directed and avoid responsibility. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, believe that work is natural for people; that workers perform best when given freedom and the opportunity to be creative and that they will be committed to organisational objectives when they can see rewards associated with their achievement. McGregor’s crucial observation was that managers worked to theory X and generally achieved poor results where theory Y would achieve more for the firm.

Most HR work is Beveridge and theory X in origin: contracts of employment and performance management are coercive tools; discipline and employment law is the ultimate instrument in forcing reluctant workers to conform. Even the more theoretical side of HR work is X flavoured. Organisations are designed around X-like control mechanisms and management trainers have taken McGregor’s definite preference for theory Y and turned it into ‘situational management’: treat people in an X way until you know you have enough basic compliance to get away with Y.

Some around HR might wish it otherwise, but we are active participants in a Beveridge view of the enthusiasm of the firm’s staff. Practitioners know this, work with it every day and succeed by picking the right fights towards balanced outcomes. Fancy rhetoric which fails to acknowledge this is about as convincing as Wagner’s dancing or Justin Beiber’s miming.

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