Saturday, May 30, 2009

theory Y and sports

Douglas McGregor described two contrasting perspectives about human motivation at work. Theory X, he explained, was the position that workers were inherently lazy, motivated by money almost entirely, and given the choice between work and play would nearly always choose play. Workers did not, according to Theory X, naturally look for something to do. They were content not to do.

Theory Y was the opposite. Theory Y was the notion that under the right conditions work could be just as much fun as play. According to theory Y, workers desire to do something meaningful with their hours. If someone had nothing to do, that person would look for something to do.

If during your first week on a job answering the telephone, the telephone did not ring, a theory X perspective would assume you would go home and talk about what a wonderful job you had. A Theory Y perspective would assume you would go home and complain to anyone who would listen--and then actively seek another job.

Many, if not most, managers operate under the theory X assumption. And they are very wrong.

Nowhere is the wisdom of theory Y more apparent than in the world of sports. Tonight I watched Kobe Bryant dismantle the Denver Nuggets by his intelligent and energetic play. Kobe Bryant makes millions of dollars each year. His team will earn an increased playoff share if they win a championship, but this bonus is relatively meaningless to a millionaire like Bryant. Yet during the game he was excited, enthusiastically encouraged his teammates, exulted when he scored a basket, and when he was victorious bearhugged a teammate.

Why does Kobe Bryant and the other millionaires who play professional sports jump like little leaguers when they are victorious? Why do teammates mob a player who has hit a game winning shot at the buzzer? It is not for theory X reasons. Basketball players earning millions of dollars do not earn more on the basis of the length of time they play during a game. Yet, if coaches do not give players "minutes" (i.e. playing time) players pout and spew their grievances to the scribes. If theory X was correct, why would players care about whether the coach put them in a game or sat them down?

Under the right conditions, people love coming to work. People want to work. And as is the case in so many ways, sports provides the context for understanding phenomena that exist beyond the world of sport.

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