In 1996, Ben Gilad wrote Business Blindspots: Replacing your Company’s Entrenched and Outdated Myths, Beliefs and Assumptions with the Realities of Today’s Markets. The author provides several insightful examples of how blind spots endanger business success. One such blindspot is the tendency to rely upon unchallenged assumptions. These  are the “incorrect assumptions allowed to go unchecked for long periods of time”.  Such assumptions can be fatal to businesses seeking to compete in a changing competitive environment (Ben Gilad mentions Schwinn’s failure to acknowledge the growth of mountain bikes).

Unchallenged assumptions influence how a company engages its workforce as well. This is especially true for executives in larger companies, notorious for insulating themselves from their own workforce. In fairness, they’re spread so thinly that they must rely on middle managers to decipher workforce signals for them. But like market signals, such signals are likely to be “biased, subjective, filtered and late”.  So the default nicely fits into what Douglas McGregor once called the Theory X Style of Management (1960):.

  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it he/she can.
  • Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.
  • The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.

Such managers might argue that “the most common situation where Theory X management comes into play involves scenarios where the people concerned are simply unwilling or incapable of self-management”. As one manager notes “ This isn’t very politically correct, but some people simply don’t want to be empowered. They just want to be told what to do and when to do it. In fact, I’ve seen situations where it bothered people to have to prioritize their work and decide how tasks should be completed” (HR Reporter Blog)

In contrast, Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y Style of Management recognizes that::

  • Effort in work is as natural as work and play.
  • People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • In industry the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilised.

These two theories have been studied for decades by business management graduates. Nonetheless, the default perspective for many managers is to follow Theory X assumptions.  Indeed, if a manager is asked “why do people work?” the most common answer today is “because they have to”. And if you believe that, “you are likely to favor tactics like punch clocks, close supervision and constant nagging, minimizing any opportunity for your workers to shun their work” (see Wall Street Journal).  

Theory X managers who retain such unchallenged assumptions do themselves a disservice. Their command and control perspective limits their ability to achieve greater workforce productivity. As such, they fail to fully utilize the human capital at their disposal. While some workers are amenable to such an arrangement, management need not accept that as a fait accompli. Changing company culture to help employees get out of their comfort zone is difficult but not impossible.