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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Theory X vs. Theory Y, or How to Motivate Children

"How can I motivate others?", is pretty frequently asked a question (Google hit count: 27.4m).

I guess what contributes to this question's importance is that it is really quite helpful, in several phases and situations in life. Be it your colleagues at work, be it your team-mates in the local football club after a not-so-promising first-half, or be it your or other's children or students who you want to learn something (say, because you recently turned a teacher) - it always comes down to motivation.

Probably the most popular theory about motivation is Maslow's hierarchy of needs, essentially stating that only once some basic needs are fulfilled, a human can seek for the ones on the next level. Heavily influenced by Maslow's famous paper from 1943, psychologists and managers alike started investigating the implications for managers, and how they can contribute to employee motivation.

Therefore, the MIT professor Douglas McGregor came up with his model of a contrasting Theory X and Theory Y, both of them about different points of view about what motivates employees.

Basically, Theory X builds on the assumption that employees in principle are lazy and unwilling to work. Consequently, their extrinsic motivation needs to be addressed. They will only work because of the outlook of their next check, otherwise lay down their tools and do nothing.
Unfortunately, it was found that an environment in which this theory is followed is far from allowing long-term happiness and an absolute killer for creativity. That approach was, and is still, used by all the real Michael Scotts (The Office US) and Strombergs out there. It is particularly prevalent in government organizations and huge enterprises.

On the contrary, Theory Y assumes that people do have the will to engage in something useful, inspiring, challenging ... something where they can fulfill their intrinsic needs. Thus, the main task for managers is to provide a framework in which it is possible for their employees to develop themselves and contribute something useful.
How different an idea is that? Employees and colleagues are no longer some kind of machines which just need to be fed, but something more, much more exciting and looking for something far beyond!
Even though that theory was develop in the 60's already, I find it astonishing how seldom it is still known, and even less being used.

However, I cannot stop wondering do which extend Theory Y applies at all.
I tend to accept what I understand from Theory Y, that people and employees are strongly self-motivated and that the major concern of management should be to remove all barriers of self-motivation. In the end, everybody is looking for fulfillment.

Apparently not so in Bosnia, though. My impression is that people are taking their job just as a means of monthly income, and nothing more. That impression was also confirmed by several of them when I raised that question in some discussions. It was also confirmed that it is true for people in many other eastern, former-communist countries where the major attitude towards work was just to be present and let the time pass by.

I pointed that out to Jurgen Appelo, author of the bestseller Management 3.0, who also wrote about that topic and replied that (text quoted with permission) ...

I believe that the same intrinsic desires (competence, status, power, freedom,
etc.) apply to all people in all cultures (with small differences).
However, some people don't seek to satisfy such desires in their jobs. That
doesn't mean that they don't want to.
It's just that they never learned that it's possible. Some people have never
experienced a fantastic job.
So yes, I believe Theory Y is better than Theory X.
However, if people don't take the trouble of finding a fantastic job, then
Theory X still applies to them. :)

As much as I'm inclined to accept that point of view, I find it rather depressing. Probably the country has more urgent issues that need to be solved first. However, I do sense quite a potential here, and I think that once people would start adopting a more positive attitude, some things might just start running easier and smoother.

So, how does that connect to children?

Well, I think both Theory X and Y might be applied to their way of developing and learning as well. Again, I remember from my school time that by most teachers Theory X was followed. Students don't want to learn, they are lazy, and the only way of getting them on the right path is by threatening them with bad marks.

As I heard recently, though, there are also other models like democratic education or Waldorf education, both of which assuming that children love to learn and grow, as long as their environment allows them to do so.

I was very surprised to find that, right around the corner where I lived for several years in Vienna, such an institution is found as well. One of my recent Couchsurfing visitors works as a teacher in a basic democratic school in Germany. Being asked about children whom her job is most challenging with, she replied without any hesitation: "Those that are not used to this approach. Those whose parents tell them they trust and empower them, but don't really live this by example".

Sometimes, lessons learned from the work with and from children are the most valuable ones. I think this is such a case.

Naturally, employees will not start growing and inventing like crazy once they are empowered to do by a modern, Theory Y manager, after being tortured by Theory X ones for several years. This change takes time, but it is definitely worth it. Your company and your colleagues will know to value it.

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