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How An Old Theory Provides New Insight Into Work Motivation

Heard of Theories X and Y? Consider Theories B and W.

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“WORST CLASS EVER. Of all the classes I’ve taken as an undergrad or MBA, this class was the biggest waste of time I have ever had. I ask myself everyday why I had to spend $3,000 for this course, plus all the money I spent on Tums, Advil, and mind-reading classes. I learned absolutely nothing. This class ate up so much of my time it ruined experiences in other courses. Please eliminate this class and give the next group of students something worth their time, effort, money, and hard work.”

This was a comment I received at the end of the semester from a student in my MBA class on Leadership. It was, to use a term my undergraduate students use, savage. But it was also surprising: Just six weeks earlier, when I had asked students for feedback at the middle of the term, they only had positive things to say. How did things turn so horribly wrong?

The problem, it turns out, was the midterm exam. Right after students provided mid-semester feedback they took the exam, and it did not go well. The class average was 73 percent. Just 8 percent of the class earned an A. The students did much worse than they had hoped, they were upset about it, and at the end of the semester they let me know.

I could rationalize my students’ reactions as being due to various shortcomings on their part, but I won’t. Because, to be fair, the exam was difficult. I designed it that way. I want my courses to be rigorous, and the exam was meant to separate those students who read, understood, and applied the material from those who didn’t. This was where I went wrong.

In 1960, MIT management professor Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he outlined what is now considered one of the classic theories of work motivation. Basically, McGregor proposed that managers take one of two views of employees: Either managers see employees as lazy, self-centered, and dim, or they see them as ready to assume responsibility and capable of accomplishing tasks. McGregor called these two perspectives Theory X and Theory Y.

In the sixty years since the book’s publication, management scholars have gained a much deeper understanding of employee motivation. Advances in technology and research methods have allowed them to study employee motivation at a more granular level, drilling down to the everyday experience of work. As a result, organizational research can explain not just what separates motivated employees from their less enthusiastic colleagues, but what affects the motivation of any one employee from one day to the next. These two perspectives are referred to as between-persons and within-persons, and they form the basis for what I’m calling Theory B and Theory W. Clever, right?

Like McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, whether you adopt Theory B or Theory W can make a profound difference in how you view the world. A few examples: Consider exercise and blood pressure. When you examine differences between people, those who exercise more have lower blood pressure than those who exercise less. But when you look within a single person, he or she has higher blood pressure when exercising than when at rest. Or compare former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and onetime Atlanta Braves slugger David Justice. Who was the better hitter in 1995-1996? Within each season Justice had the better batting average, but across (that is, between) the two seasons, Jeter performed better at the plate.

The idea that the way something works between persons (or seasons, for that matter) can differ when considered within persons isn’t new, but it’s critical to understanding employee motivation. Unfortunately, most employees and managers think only in terms of Theory B. Say Amanda performs better at work than Sarah because Amanda is more engaged than Sarah. With a Theory B mindset, Sarah is likely to feel envious of and hostile toward Amanda. Similarly, their manager might consider paying Amanda more than Sarah, hiring more Amandas (and fewer Sarahs), or at the very least, figuring out why Amanda is so engaged and then applying those lessons to Sarah, even if they have very different motivations.

To further illustrate the dangers of the Theory B approach to management, look no further than Jack Welch, heralded as the greatest manager of the twentieth century. One reason Welch attributed to his success in leading General Electric was his use of a forced ranking performance management system. Each year, managers were required to rank each of their employees from best to worst. The bottom ten percent were then fired, regardless of their actual performance. The system was meant to boost motivation and productivity, but it had serious drawbacks. If you were a capable and motivated employee who worked on a team of all-stars, you could find yourself out of a job. Unsurprisingly, this Theory B approach led employees to sabotage colleagues and engage in political behavior. This might explain why GE, Microsoft, and other organizations have abandoned the practice in recent years.

These problems arise because Theory B focuses us on social comparisons, even when they aren’t warranted or appropriate. In contrast, Theory W attunes us to personal development. Despite their differences, both Amanda and Sarah perform better on days when they’re more engaged at work than on those days when they’re less engaged. With a Theory W mindset, Amanda and Sarah are less likely to dwell on each other’s performance or to compete with one another. Instead, to use a golf analogy, they simply play the course. And Theory W changes the manager’s approach as well. Rather than focusing on which employees perform better than others, Theory W prompts us to remember that everyone has good days and bad days. The goal of the manager, then, is to maximize for each employee the number of good days.

Like Theory X and Theory Y, Theory B and Theory W can have significant implications at work and in the classroom. Community college administrator Matt Reed captures the distinction between Theory B and Theory W nicely: “If you see [your job] as weeding out the untalented, you’ll have different priorities than if you see it as helping everybody reach their potential.”

By holding onto a Theory B mindset, I let my students down. With a course devoted to developing leaders, it is both ironic and personally painful that I didn’t subscribe to Theory W. But rather than agonizing about my teaching evaluations being lower than my colleagues’ scores, as a Theory B devotee might do, I’m focused on improving the course for the next group of MBAs, like a Theory W disciple would. That way, both my course and my students can reach their full potential. For those of you who lead or manage others, I’d encourage you to embrace Theory W too. If you do, your employees are likely to find their jobs worth the time, effort, money, and hard work. That seems like the human thing to do.

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