We had a small gathering last night and as the wine circulated conversation got louder, and opinions more opinionated and merriment reigned supreme – we were discussing Management Theories!

You may not find that topic a fit cause for hilarity – but let me paint the scene. During the day I had finally started to sort out my working library – those books that pertain to my working life, books I read because of necessity not always for pleasure! In the process I had discovered lurking at the back behind more current tomes, a very old and dilapidated copy of Motivation in Management written by George Lumsden in 1974 for the Chrysler Corporation.

This was a ground breaking book, and set out a new style of management, which came to be known as Participatory Management. It derided authoritarian management styles and based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; McGregor’s X and Y Theories; Likert’s Employee-Centered Management [sic]; Herzberg’s Motivation – Hygiene Concept; Transactional Analysis and Management by Objectives, it designed a brand new and more participatory concept of business management.

It was new, it broke the mould and it recognised that workers do have a stake in the company they work for. Gone were the bad old days where bosses ordered and workers obeyed; recognition was now due of the experience and competency of the workforce and we were all into motivational methods of obtaining our goals. Obedience was out, motivation was in – It was long overdue and we embraced it with avidity.

That was over thirty years ago, and one of my pleasures in life is to go back and re-read some of the books that defined my thoughts and opinions at the time. Looking back at them from today’s perspective can often offer valid ideas about present day problems – but they can also be cause for a case of “Tut Tut! What were we thinking!!?”

In the following I am in no way demeaning the importance of this book or the ideas it was based on – but as they say, hindsight is 20/20 vision and while we embraced these ideas with gusto, time has taught us some valuable lessons.

During the conversation I brought out my copy of the book and we went through it with different eyes – the concept of obtaining consent by motivating the worker through questions now had a different lesson for us all.

‘Never’, said Rob, ‘Never ask a worker for commitment with a closed question!’ To avoid an authoritarian attitude, we were encouraged to ask for participation – ‘Fred! Are you in a position to come down to my office’ was preferred to ‘Fred, come into my office for a moment.’

But the irreverent response it got around my dining table last night was along the lines of ‘Sorry, no can do – I’m standing on my head’ (position – head! – oh let it go!)

‘Do you see any reason why we can’t make this quota?’ was answered with ‘Yes!’ And the final killer ‘This job is really important so I need you to work Saturday –OK?’ was greeted with raucous laughter and a number of suggestions which can be summed up with the words ‘No, it’s not!’

So in thirty years we have learned that while creating a sense of inclusion by asking questions is important, be careful how you phrase them.

There were of course the usual lot of ex-military types around the table (Well, the husband and I for a start) and we came from a much different perspective. It is pleasant when you are in company with others who have shared your own special memories – and the thought of asking a private soldier ‘It’s your turn to go on piquet, is that OK with you?’ brought howls of laughter.

Mark, an ex-Sergeant, put it this way ‘Let’s set the scene – you’re out on patrol when the first shot rings out. Is this a time for the leader to say “OK everyone; gather around, it looks like we have a problem. Now we usually do this … but does anybody have any better ideas?’

There was a moment of stunned silence as we contemplated with awe the scenario Mark had painted. I’m sorry, but thirty years on we have come to realise that sometimes authoritarian leadership and instinctive obedience is necessary.

Julie raised the X and Y theory about workers’ attitudes to work. The Theory X worker dislikes work, tries to avoid it and avoids responsibility; while Theory Y positively loves work, is a self-starter and appreciated rewards. We have all met one or two that fall into either category; but Julie posed the question ‘What about Theory Z?’

Most people, Julie suggested, actually fall into Category Z. Peter is normally a Y worker, but he goes home on Tuesday and has a right royal row with the wife – he comes to work on Wednesday a perfect example of an X worker. We saw the point.

As we finished the coffee; got coats, shoes and handbags we decided that after all managerial theories should be guidelines and applied carefully. Many of them are situational, Chrysler probably had stunning results with Motivation in Management – but it merely led to one soldier huffily asking me ‘Is anyone in charge of this rat bag outfit – if so, what are the orders!’ when applied in the military.

And people change for all sorts of reasons, and what applies perfectly one day can be completely counterproductive the next.

So as we contemplate the modern theories of leadership and management, perhaps we should be like the man who kept his coffin in the bathroom – he liked to be reminded of his own mortality. We need to be mindful of the limited span of most theories, and to remind ourselves constantly as we espouse our present preferred theory that in thirty years time someone is probably going to say ‘Tut, Tut – what were they thinking!!!’

Michele @ Trischel

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