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Are Employees Lazy and Stupid… Or Something Else?

Motivational SignpostLast month’s column described the roots of modern budget management systems in the progressive and reform movements that took hold in the beginning of the 20th century. Financial management was a component of the new administrative science, and the relationship between top managers and workers was influenced by the concepts of “scientific management.”

Centralized budget management fits well with scientific management. Frederick Taylor and others of that era argued that work processes could be broken down into their component parts, and managers could analyze the most efficient steps necessary to get a job done. Once they were given detailed instructions, workers could be rewarded (paid more) as their work output increased. Conforming to this philosophy, city managers of the time kept the budget reins tight (as do most today). Leonard White notes in The City Manager (1927) that the professional CEOs had a dim view of the ability of their department heads to manage budgets, and one city manager went so far as to describe his subordinates’ budget estimates as “worthless.”

A half century after the dawn of scientific management, Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise. He labeled the traditional view of workers and how they should be managed “Theory X.” McGregor’s description of the assumptions of “Theory X” fit well with Taylorism and scientific management. In that view, human beings dislike work, they prefer to be directed and they avoid responsibility.

McGregor proposed a different way of viewing workers and their motivation. Under his “Theory Y,” work is inherently rewarding, people can in fact exercise self-direction and self-control, and they willingly accept responsibility. As confirmation, Frederick Herzberg, in The Motivation to Work found that while employees could be de-motivated by “hygiene” factors such as low pay or bad working conditions, they are largely motivated by achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement and work itself.

A common thread in McGregor’s and Herzberg’s work is the idea that employees like having control over their jobs, and in how they approach their work. They are not mere cogs in a machine; a job well-done is a reward in itself, and people need the tools and resources (and permission) that enable them to do good work. Herzberg specifically notes the importance of control of resources—“mini-budgets, tools, etc. that are necessary to do the job”—as a positive factor in motivation.

While another half century has passed since the publication of The Human Side of Enterprise, management scholars seem to have confirmed that the assumptions of “Theory Y” are generally correct, and that following a “Theory X” approach to management–in which employees are assumed to be lazy and stupid and the manager needs to direct their work–is generally bad for an organization. Peter Drucker notes (in a collection of his writings published in 2001), “Self-control means stronger motivation: a desire to do the best rather than just enough to get by. It means higher performance goals and broader vision…That management by self-control is highly desirable will hardly be disputed in America or in American business today…Each manager should have the information he needs to measure his own performance and should receive it soon enough to make any changes necessary for the desired results. And this information should go to the manager himself, and not to his superior. It should be the means of self-control, not a tool of control from above.”

Tom Peters, in Thriving on Chaos, emphasizes the importance of empowering managers and staff, and that the individual’s control over resources (budget and spending) is a critical means of empowerment: “Increased spending authority does not entail a loss of control. To the contrary, it begets more control of the most powerful sort–self-control. Low spending control leads to shenanigans–avoid a $1,000 limit by making an endless stream of $999.95 requisitions. High spending authority says to the worker, or unit boss, ‘I take you seriously.’ The monkey is on his or her back to live up to the trust.”

The results of research have consistently supported the importance of giving staff the tools they need to do the job. The Gallup Organization conducted more than 80,000 interviews with managers and employees of more than 400 organizations over twenty-five years. They found that employees both get the greatest job satisfaction and do their best work when twelve conditions are satisfied. One of them is, “Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?” For managers, “materials and equipment” are ultimately represented by budget authority.

If that’s the case, have our current budget management systems in fact changed to reflect what we’ve learned about human psychology over the past fifty years? Stay tuned for the answer…


Author: Scott Lazenby, city manager, City of Sandy, OR and adjunct associate professor, Portland State University. [email protected].  

Image courtesy of http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/encyclopedia/Eco-Ent/Employee-Motivation.html#b.

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2 Responses to Are Employees Lazy and Stupid… Or Something Else?

  1. Brian Poliner Reply

    July 25, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I agree with your assertion that giving employees the tools they need may be important component to staff satisfaction. However giving employees unlimited resources to do their job may still not lead to satisfaction and consequently they still may not be motivated. These same employees, if given unlimited tools and resources may not produce any additional benefit than if they are provided limited resources.
    I also agree with Herzberg’s theory that extrinsic motivators lead to dissatisfaction but job satisfaction comes from intrinsic needs being satisfied. Schroder (2008) Job satisfaction of employees at a Christian university points out that job satisfaction is affected by intrinsic factors, which are those issues the individual has control over. He posits that job satisfaction can lead to increased motivation and organizational commitment. Intrinsic motivators are more complex to satisfy. D.C. McClelland (1985) in Human Motivation argues that people are motivated differently and have different needs. These are a result of one’s life experiences.
    The theory of Person-Organization Fit (P-O) advances that a person has a greater chance for satisfaction when their values are in congruence with those values of the organization. Much research has been conducted on the subject of job satisfaction and data exists that argue that satisfaction levels increase when values match those of co-workers supervisors, and organization. Employees are less likely to leave when they are satisfied.
    Empowerment is a key to satisfaction. Empowered employees are more resourceful, innovative, and able to think outside the box. These same employees can accomplish more with less. In an age where budget resources are limited organizations need to rethink the theory of “let’s throw money at the problem and that will fix it”. Instead these organizations need to look at how they hire, train, reward and acknowledge, and motivate their employees. Cookie cutter approaches may not be sufficient.
    Government and non-profit organizations have to look at new approaches to management to remain sustainable. The fix starts with its employees. However throwing money at a problem is not the only answer.

    • Scott Lazenby Reply

      August 17, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      Excellent comments! Your points on intrinsic motivation and the importance of shared values are spot on. I believe operating managers also appreciate clear direction on the organization’s goals, and a defined amount (not unlimited) of resources at their disposal to achieve the goals.

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