What’s NOT Being Said

While this might not be everyone’s definition of a good time, Tam loves diving into old management books—both to see what’s changed, as well as what’s withstood the test of time.

Many moons ago, Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist, coined his “Theory X and Theory Y” that draw a distinction between two modes of human motivation. According to an HBR article from 1970, the theories can be described as:

Theory X assumes that people dislike work and must be coerced, controlled, and directed toward organizational goals. Furthermore, most people prefer to be treated this way, so they can avoid responsibility.
Theory Y—the integration of goals—emphasizes the average person’s intrinsic interest in his work, his desire to be self-directing and to seek responsibility, and his capacity to be creative in solving business problems.

McGregor sided with the latter approach (Theory Y) and detailed it in his book, The Human Side of Enterprise.

Regardless of what side of the Theory X/Y aisle you sit (we’re with McGregor), both theories rest on a series of assumptions, generalizations, opinions and beliefs that are held not only by individuals within the company, but collectively across the organization.

These are both explicit and implicit and require a certain level of managerial awareness to assess what beliefs are consciously and unconsciously held.

According to McGregor:

Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations, and hypotheses—that is to say, on theory. Our assumptions are frequently implicit, sometimes quite unconscious, often conflicting; nevertheless, they determine our predictions that if we do a, b will occur. Theory and practice are inseparable.

McGregor passed two decades before the dawn of the internet, so the world we live in today would seem more like science fiction from his perspective. That being said, his recommendation still stands, which I think is a testament to his thinking. (It’s withstood the test of time.)

He suggests that the next time you’re in a meeting, which for many of us might be on Zoom, he suggested jotting down the assumptions of the speaker (beliefs, opinions, convictions and generalizations). Of course, some of these will be easier to catch than others.

  • Explicit assumptions are clearly stated.

  • Implicit assumptions require filling-in-the-dots.

Let’s put this into practice together.

Imagine you’re at a team meeting to discuss your remote work policies, and the manager says:

No meeting days are important for our team’s productivity. That’s why it’s built into our team culture.

Explicit assumptions:

  • There will be no meetings one day of the week

  • It’s become a behavioral norm on the team

Implicit assumptions:

  • Meetings hurt productivity

  • There will be meetings the other days of the week

  • There is a team culture that everyone is aware of and bought into

While we can never be 100% sure about assumptions (remember that old saying that it can make an ass out of u and me), it still can be helpful as a starting point for understanding.

This week, we challenge you to note the explicit and implicit assumptions within your team and your organization. What is conflicting? What surprises you? How might this change how you manage?

As McGregor once said:

Tune your ear to listen for assumptions about human behavior, whether they relate to an individual, a particular group, or a person in general. The length and variety of your list will surprise you.