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Are you really a theory Y kind of place?

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The illusory superiority bias is one of the more well known psychological biases.  In a basic sense, it suggests that we are often disposed to think we’re much better at something than we really are.  Research has shown it to be present in all manner of fields.  One area that hasn’t really been explored by academia however is the bias in evidence at an organisational level.

Take Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y for instance.  In theory X, management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can and that they inherently dislike work. As a result of this, management believes that workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of controls developed.

Theory Y by contrast assumes that people are motivated more by self-esteem and personal development, and that therefore organisations should do all they can to encourage employees to be creative, to support them in their personal development, and to give them work that they can derive satisfaction from.

I suspect most of you are well aware of the two, and indeed it’s rare these days to find a company that is openly X.  X is certainly not a cool place to work, and a cursory glance through the mission statements of most companies will find them awash with Y type language about employees being their main asset and so on.

CEOs want their organisations to be team based, knowledge driven and customer focused.  Except what most of us find in the workplace doesn’t really match up with the rhetoric.  It’s almost like our organisations have visions of theory Y, but all of their systems are theory X.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why so many of our organisations seem so adept at slowly whittling away the enthusiasm we so often have when we start out in a new job.  We start out all fresh faced and enthusiastic, keen as we are to prove our worth and make our mark.  It’s kind of how things should be when we go to work, isn’t it?

Except the systems we find ourselves in at work gently erode that away until employees are often left in a state of trying to work the system for their own personal advantage.

With so much managerial attention given to how to motivate and engage employees, maybe it would be worth flipping things around a little and asking instead how they can design a work system that stops de-motivating them instead.

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