The Employee Experience: As Simple as “X” and “Y?”

Sixty years ago Douglas McGregor from the MIT Sloan School of Management presented two theories of workforce motivation he named “Theory X” and “Theory Y.” Over the intervening decades these theories have been used by leadership teams, HR professionals and OD folks as they craft and create HR policies, performance management programs, rewards and recognition, and work space design.

If it’s been some time since you gave much thought to McGregor’s work, here’s a refresher:

Theory X assumes that:

  • people dislike work
  • people want to avoid work (i.e. “people are inherently lazy”)
  • people do not want to take responsibility

Theory Y assumes that:

  • people are happy to work
  • people are self-motivated to pursue objectives
  • people thrive on responsibility

In a Theory X organization:

  • management is authoritarian
  • control is centralized with a belief that people must be coerced
  • a reward and punishment style (i.e. “carrot and stick”) is used; financial incentives (or financial punishments) are believed to the best motivator

In a Theory Y organization:

  • management is participative; employees are involved
  • feedback, especially positive feedback, is continuous
  • it is assumed that control, rewards and punishments are not the only ways to stimulate people
  • people have self-direction and self-control

Simplified perhaps. Because, of course, we all learned in our earliest forays into leading others that management of a team requires some combination of Theory X and Theory Y style.  Every employee is unique.  Yet “simple” is helpful as we tackle what we consider to be the nuanced and complex workplace issues today; decades after McGregor first shared these theories in 1957.

So as I sit here, day-in-and-day-out, and think about the employee experience (which, let’s face it, is merely an amalgamation of previous terms and is now the trendy catch phrase/buzzword for everything else that has come before it) I often find myself stripping all the glam and sexy stuff down to a pretty basic question… “Do you provide an X or a Y experience?”

For therein lies the problem; without asking that question and truly examining a few key principles about how people are viewed, numerous organizations continuously circle round and round in a never-ending journey of futility.  They may telegraph to candidates, applicants and new hires all the Theory Y things they do when, in reality, the policies, rewards and management style exhibited by the vast majority are most assuredly Theory X.

Not to mention there’s a real danger of ongoing confirmation bias; a Theory X organization which operates with control and coercion may find, as time goes on, that employees become so accustomed to punishing behavior (“you’re 5 minutes late! Here’s your penalty!”) that they do, in fact, exert minimal effort and thus confirm all the assumptions that managers have had all along. “See how lazy they are!  You can’t trust people to show up on time. We have to punish them or no one will come to work!”

Let’s be real though; there is not one single HR pundit or “Future of Work” speaker out on the vast global conference speaking circuit touting “Top Ten Ways to Motivate Your Lazy Unwilling-to-Work Employees!”  Nope; that wouldn’t sell a lot of tickets.

Instead, managers from assorted disciplines attend their specific professional development conferences, sign up for the “HR Track,” and take copious notes as some HR consultant/speaker talks about “The New Way of Work.”

And then those very same managers head back to the office, roll up their sleeves, and bust out the Theory X.

Is it Ever Time to STOP Chasing a Dream?

The internet, magazines and even the backs-of-cereal-boxes are filled with inspirational messages, stories and exhortations. Quotes abound as HR bloggers, career coaches and life style experts share words of encouragement:

There’s big business to be had by inspiring others, pushing people to develop good habits, live their authentic lives and clarify their goals and aspirations. Depending upon one’s outlook it’s easy enough to find motivation of the spiritual, religious, financial or career-focused type. Future focused human beings, with a desire to improve their lives, may set goals and dream big as part of a deeper search for personal meaning. People may have aspirations in order to overcome adversity stemming from the death of a family member, the ending of a relationship, or the loss of a job. Sometimes it’s just a bit of restlessness or a lingering feeling that they can find enjoyment and fulfillment by doing something ‘more’ than merely holding a spot on this whirling planet we call Earth.

Positive thinking is great; much better, in my opinion, to look for opportunities than employ a “woe is me; I can’t change things” mindset.

But after a recent conversation I got to wondering if there is any validity to the opinion that there’s a shelf-life on dreams.

  • “You don’t have that many years to work before retirement; perhaps you just need to be happy where you are.”
  • “What more could you want? You have a pretty great life.”
  • “Isn’t your current life enough to make you happy?”
  • “You’ve accomplished a lot; isn’t it time to take it easy?”

I know a lot of dreamers. In some cases I could refer to them as idealists or even visionaries. I run into numerous early or mid-stage career HR professionals who know, with certainty, their desired career path; moving into a CHRO role or shifting from a generalist path to a specialization in OD or Learning and Performance. I recently met a guy who wanted to be a professional musician but put that on hold in order to take over his family’s business a few decades ago; but now he’s gigging with various bands and the plan is alive to work towards a recording contract.

Is there an expiration date on dreams? I don’t think so. 

“I’m going to dream. Maybe one day I’ll be disappointed that things didn’t work out exactly

as I’d planned, that I didn’t get to write for National Geographic, pen a bestselling novel

or win a literary award, but I will have challenged myself to reach a level that I didn’t

think I could. I would have enjoyed the process, had fun, and even for a little while,

believed all things possible.”

Mridu Khullar Relph

 

Dispatches from Oz – #HRTechFest

Today (I think….I’ve totally lost track of the days and time zones), I’m heading back to the states after 5 stupendous days in Sydney, Australia. I made the trip (my first time down under) in order to attend the HR Innovation and Tech Fest where I spoke at two sessions (including one with my friend Amy Cropper from Amazon), did a podcast with the folks from Future Knowledge, provided a bit of assistance to the event organizers as a Chairperson, and just generally got to talk about HR and HR Tech for 2 1/2 days. I also got to spend some quality time with my friends at HROnboard; I serve on their Advisory Board and it was great to hang out in person.

Although I didn’t take the time to write any blog posts as the conference was occurring, I did jot down some random thoughts on my iPhone as events unfolded:

  • The weather is glorious; I think around 80 degrees Farenheit but I’m not quite sure because everything is quoted in Celsius and, of course, we never learned that system in school
  • Australia has really cool currency/bills. With women on the bills too; and not just the Queen which, of course, they sort of have too.  There’s a lesson or something in here for the US….#HarrietTubman
  • These Aussies love their coffee. This java is so damn good I haven’t even missed Community Coffee (with chicory) like I usually do when I take a trip away from home
  • In Australia and New Zealand, HR professionals have responsibility for payroll. They call it “Remuneration” which makes it sound simultaneously a hell of a lot sexier and much less painful
  • The liberal use of curse words and profanity by speakers seems to not only be OK but somewhat expected. (HR folks in the US would be clutching their pearls and writing scathing comments on the session review feedback sheets…)
  • Numerous partner/vendor booths Expo Hall served coffee with a private barista on hand to whip up one’s favorite. My request for a plain black coffee (“Americano”) was met with much skepticism
  • Each concurrent session rooms not only has water (with proper glasses) but also giant bowls with gummi candies/lollies
  • Had a conversation on Day 1 with a young HR professional who recently started with his organization. His office mates are middle-aged complacent HR ladies who (a) tell him he’s working too hard (b) dissuade him from proposing new ideas because “that just won’t work.”  He loves human resources but is, already, feeling beaten down by the naysayers….in his own office/profession! (Hmmmmm…I had this precise conversation with a young HR pro in New Orleans not that long ago too….)
  • Taxi Cabs in Sydney have a sign prominently displayed that states “You WILL be photographed; conversations may be recorded.”
  • This is a very sensibly run conference; Day 2 sessions start at the civilized hour of 8:45 AM (with ‘Arrival Tea and Coffee’ at 8 AM); none of this 7 AM ‘sunrise session’ crap like so many HR events in the US
  • Had a conversation on Day 2 with an HR leader about their continuing evolution of user adoption; they implemented a new HCM solution a few years ago and are still struggling with (1) ensuring employees access self-service (instead of walking into HR and expecting to drop off paper forms or asking to get a print out of their pay stub (sounds familiar; am I right?!?), and (2) finding ways to keep their managers involved and completing workflow tasks.  We had a good chat about finding ways to promote what I like to call “forced adoption.”
  • Break time refreshments mean tea, coffee (yes!!) and bite-sized yummy things; today we had custard tarts with currants (heavenly). Conference break-time refreshments in the US, on the other hand, means Cokes, giant chocolate chip cookies, and ginormous pretzels with mustard and cheez sauce
  • Interesting to see familiar vendors with different signage and options; I also love seeing vendors with offerings totally unique to this market
  • Mid-way through day two and I finally figured out how to make my own flat white at one of the espresso/coffee machine stations in the Expo Hall!! Excited!
  • The delegates at this conference are incredibly focused, eager to learn, and incredibly ready to move HR forward. Such incredible passion for moving past the status quo and embracing the ‘way we work’ today.
  • Yes; I did dance in the Expo Hall while some guy who was on “The Voice” played a Rolling Stones tune. I just hope there was no camera footage

Fin.

********

Well…not really The End.  More like The Beginning.

There was talk about innovation in practices; finding new ways to work and optimizing our work. And yes, while there was lots of chatter about AI and robots (and a few jokes about HR + blockchain), for the most part the focus rested upon the use of automation to increase efficiency and ….. here’s the key part ….. keeping humanity in HR.

I find it interesting, over these last 12-18 months, how many more conversations we’re having about re-engineering (reverse engineering?) our processes, workflows and interactions with candidates, applicants and employees to bring back the human touch. This conference? We talked about it a lot. 

And a few final thoughts:

  • There is a lack of A/C in Sydney. Oh sure, the ocean breeze feels wonderful and everything but some of these shops could use a bit of cooling air
  • Food, in general, is less sweetened than the garbage we eat in the US. I especially noticed this in breakfast jam, sour cream, muffins and bread
  • I tried vegemite for breakfast one day and it was loathsome
  • Brothels are legal in NSW. I discovered this when I was perusing a newspaper and read the job adverts
  • I had to search quite a bit to find a carbonated beverage a.k.a. Diet Coke
  • My day trip to Manly Beach with my pals Amy Cropper and David D’Souza was amazing! We took the ferry, ate prawns for lunch, climbed up a cliff to look out over the ocean, and got up close and personal with water dragons and an Echidna
  • I managed, quite successfully, to sample as many wines from Australia and New Zealand as I could manage. There are many more to go however … so I guess I’ll have to come back to wrap things up!