Sunday, March 14, 2010

Theory Y, The Big East, and Williams

My regular job involves teaching and writing about communication in organizations. A researcher named Douglas McGregor described two perspectives regarding management that are related to communicating in organizations. He called these contrasting perspectives, theory X and theory Y.

Theory X holds that people are basically lazy, do not naturally seek out responsibility, and are motivated to perform only by monetary rewards. If a manager subscribes to theory X she or he only needs to communicate to employees what to do, how to do it, and what are the financial ramifications of doing it or not doing it.

Theory Y believes that people are not inherently lazy, will under the right conditions see work to be as much fun as play, and therefore have a natural desire to seek out responsibility. Given the choice of doing nothing or doing something, theory X suggests that people would delight in doing nothing. Theory Y believes that people would be frustrated by doing nothing.

If managers subscribe to theory Y, then communicating what to do, and how to do it, is not enough. Employees need to know if they have done well or done poorly. Genuine communications of recognition, if you believe in theory Y can be as motivating as a monetary reward.

Support for Theory Y comes in several forms. One such form is that studies of people who quit jobs indicate that the primary reason for quitting a job is not salary, but lack of recognition, respect, and feeling of worth at work. Freud suggested that the two driving forces of humans are work and sex. Sex, I think, is a given. But if you believe people are driven to do something meaningful with their time, you are a subscriber of Theory Y.

So, what does this have to do with college basketball?

Can anyone who watched any of the championship games yesterday, ever believe in Theory X? These players were jumping out of their skins yesterday for a chance to win the games. They cried when they lost and did inane victory dances when they won. Ninety percent of the players who played yesterday will never play professionally. They will not play for money. They are playing for something else. And that is, to excel, to be recognized in their own heads and in the heads of the people who support them. The need for recognition can have its own dangers, but believing that people only perform for monetary rewards is shortsighted.

Some might contend that the teams are playing for an external reward--a shot at the NCAA tournament. Yes, perhaps, but the minor teams know, they know, they know that they will be obliterated in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Ohio University defeated Akron yesterday in overtime for the MAC title. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluffs won its tournament. Oakland University won its. If any of these teams get within 15 points of its first round opponent I will be stunned. Yet, they were tearing with joy when they won. They were tearing because they will have the recognition of being to the big dance.

Georgetown and West Virginia played for the Big East championship yesterday. Regardless of the outcome, both teams were nearly guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. Yet that game was one of the most intensely played basketball games I have ever seen. They were playing for theory Y reasons and were they ever playing.

Anyone who watched basketball yesterday knows that the Big East is the jewel of the conferences. I think that at least three of the Big East teams will be in the sweet sixteen, and depending on the seedings, three may be in the final four. Nevertheless in a championship game which essentially was for bragging rights--theory Y motivators--the two teams played ferociously.

And then there is Williams College. Division 3. They beat Brandeis yesterday to get to the final four of Division 3. Nobody, but nobody, but nobody on Williams or Brandeis will play professionally. Yet the intensity of the game to get to a final four was undoubtedly high. I live adjacent to Brandeis University and the gray day surrounding my neighborhood today is likely matched by the gray mood of Brandeis followers who lost nothing yesterday except the theory Y benefits of feeling like a winner.

One sidebar about Williams College. When I played on the freshman team at Albany we had an away game at Williams. The freshman team typically played a preliminary contest and the home team varsity would play the main event. At that time there was only division 1 and division 2, and our freshman contest was a division 2 game. For some reason, when we played away, our varsity would not travel with us. The opponent's varsity would play another opponent. This day in 1968 the Williams varsity was playing division 1, Harvard in the main event.

Now Harvard plays in the Ivy league which is a relatively weak division 1 conference. It is true that a few years earlier in 1965 Princeton led by Bill Bradley (the Bill Bradley who later would become a United States Senator) went to the final four, but Harvard was not Princeton. They were a weak division 1 team.

When our game ended we headed for the visitor's locker room. Waiting to exit from the locker room to play the main event was the Harvard team. They were big, much bigger than we were. I remember thinking that if we had to play them we would lose by 40. It is difficult for those of us who play games in the backyard, and perhaps were decent high school athletes, to respect just how big and strong and good college basketball players are.

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