David Noer: Theory x leadership in a theory y culture | Columnists

“He is a fussy over-manager, under-manager and suspicious. We want you to help him change or we’ll have to let him go.

These paraphrased comments came from the chairman of the board of a software company that hired me as a consultant to work with its new chairman. It was mission impossible. He was stuck in his self-proclaimed, “kicking and taking names” style. Hopefully the board has learned the dangers of employing theory x leadership in a theory y culture. This is a lesson yet to be learned by our North Carolina Legislature and the UNC Board of Governors.

Leadership guru Douglas McGregor articulated two contrasting approaches that remain popular today: x and y theories.

Theory x Managers take an external approach, do not trust employees and must monitor and control them. Theory y managers believe in internal motivation and nurture it through coaching and collaboration.

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The x-theory approach may have worked in post-war manufacturing environments, but does not fit today’s pandemic-weary, work-from-home, service-oriented service culture. technology. It is also clearly inappropriate for government and educational leadership. A prime example is our state legislature’s past resistance to Medicaid expansion.

In an example of x-theory-driven mistrust, false attribution, and fear of losing control, until very recently, our gerrymandered Republican state legislature turned its collective nose to Medicaid expansion. The expansion would have provided desperately needed health care to more than half a million people, saved declining rural hospitals, generated billions in federal funding and created new jobs. Their stubborn resistance was based on the paranoid fear that the federal government would not recognize having paid 90% of the expansion costs and the sectarian belief that people would become too dependent on government aid.

Our legislature has suddenly changed course. The House and Senate have passed conflicting bills supporting the expansion. The reasons: money and pressure from voters. After a fundraising box under their budget Christmas tree sat closed for years, a new box filled with a two-year, $1.5 billion federal sweetener has popped up. Yet the uninsured continue to fall ill, rural health care is in shambles, and the knee-jerk Republican negative reaction to the Affordable Care Act is increasingly unshared by those in need who vote. .

The legislature adjourned for the summer without passing the expansion. Now the House and Senate are squabbling over the Senate’s proposed relaxation of certificates of need laws that reduce hospital competition. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Speaker Phil Berger will eventually broker a deal. In the meantime, those in need continue to suffer.

With academic freedom, tenure, and research autonomy, universities have traditionally been academic, self-regulating institutions. The Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors’ heavy-handed partisan handling of college center closures, as well as politically motivated appointments and tenure decisions of chancellors, resulted in a detailed negative report and the official condemnation of the UNC system and its governors by the American Association. university professors. This was another example of the negative consequences of forcing a theory x style on a theory y environment. And it was a stain on the reputation of our university system.

Some organizations have evolved. The military has traditionally been described as a bastion of command and control x management theory. Once, as a man of low rank, I was appointed by colleagues to suggest to a junior officer that we could be more efficient by doing something differently. He pulled me to attention, confronted me, and yelled that I wasn’t paid to think, shut up, and do as I was told. Years later, I participated in a leadership development program for senior officers vying for promotion to general. They could obviously make difficult military decisions but, in times of immense complexity, they were thoughtful, introspective and open to new ideas. This young officer of the past would never have risen in today’s army.

For our society to survive, we need creative, inward-looking leaders and followers. A theory x kicking a leadership approach and taking names and a thoughtless response of greeting and taking orders will not suffice. Blaming, blaming and scapegoating will not make our nation and our world great again. Global warming, nuclear slashing, economic inequality and the dark side of technological progress require thoughtful, collaborative and theoretical partnerships.

Greensboro resident David Noer writes a monthly column on leadership, organizational behavior and community issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

Sharon D. Cole