Last night, in the midst of a small gathering, as wine glasses were refilled and laughter echoed through the room, an unexpected topic took center stage: Management Theories. Now, you might not immediately think of this as a source of hilarity, but let me set the scene for you. Earlier that day, while sorting through my working library, I stumbled upon a dusty relic from 1974 – “Motivation in Management” by George Lumsden, written for the Chrysler Corporation.
This book was groundbreaking in its time, introducing a new management style known as Participatory Management. It challenged authoritarian approaches, drawing from concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, McGregor’s X and Y Theories, Likert’s Employee-Centered Management, Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Concept, Transactional Analysis, and Management by Objectives. It advocated for a more inclusive approach that recognized the importance of workers’ input and motivation. It marked the end of the era where bosses simply gave orders and workers followed without question. Obedience gave way to motivation, and we eagerly embraced this change.
Fast forward over thirty years, and one of my pleasures in life is revisiting books that shaped my thinking. Looking at them from today’s perspective can yield valuable insights or, in some cases, elicit a bemused “What were we thinking?”
As we pored over the old book during our gathering, we viewed its content with fresh eyes. One particular lesson stood out: the importance of phrasing questions to motivate rather than command. Instead of saying, “Fred, come into my office for a moment,” we were encouraged to ask, “Fred, are you in a position to come down to my office?” The results, however, were quite comical. Responses like, “Sorry, no can do – I’m standing on my head,” left us in stitches.
In essence, we’ve learned that while asking questions to create a sense of inclusion is vital, the phrasing matters greatly.
Around the table, there were a few ex-military types, myself included, who had a different perspective on leadership. Imagining asking a private soldier, “It’s your turn to go on piquet, is that OK with you?” was met with uproarious laughter. We recognized that sometimes, in certain situations, authoritarian leadership and instinctive obedience are necessary.
We also delved into the X and Y theory of workers’ attitudes toward work. Theory X characterizes workers who dislike work, avoid it, and evade responsibility, while Theory Y describes those who love work, are self-starters, and seek rewards. However, one guest raised an interesting point: What about Theory Z? Most people, she argued, fall into this category. A person may be a Theory Y worker most of the time but become a Theory X worker after a stressful evening at home. We all nodded in agreement.
As we wrapped up the evening with coffee and collected our belongings, we reached a consensus: managerial theories should be guidelines applied with care. Many of them are situational, and what works perfectly one day may be counterproductive the next. Chrysler may have achieved remarkable results with Motivation in Management, but when applied in the military, it could lead to a soldier questioning, “Is anyone in charge of this rat bag outfit – if so, what are the orders?”
In the end, we concluded that modern theories of leadership and management should be embraced with an awareness of their limited lifespan. As we advocate for our preferred theories today, we should keep in mind that in thirty years, someone may look back and say, “What were they thinking?”
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