Recent discussions at the National Productivity Forum pointed to challenges facing the UAE as we move to diversify our economy and embrace knowledge work as a source of economic growth. One of the key issues is how the development of diversified activities in a knowledge economy also require the adoption of different management techniques.
More than 50 years ago Douglas McGregor of the Sloan School of Management in MIT proposed two essential approaches to management, which he called theory X and theory Y. The main elements of McGregor’s theory are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s.
McGregor described two types of managers. Theory x managers have a fundamental belief that workers don’t really like to work, lack motivation and consequently must be managed by strict guidelines, close monitoring and threats of punishment if tasks are not met. Theory y managers, on the other hand, believe that given the right environment, workers will enjoy their work, take responsibility for it, find innovative ways to improve their work and consequently require limited supervision and guidance.
Which type of manger are you? More importantly, which type of manager do your subordinates think you are?
In the many years I have worked with executive students in the UAE, some common issues come to the fore in discussions on management and workplace behaviour: controlling managers, punitive motivational techniques, top-down communication, an emphasis on status rather than ability, and inflexibility.
In a low skill resource-based economy, a theory x management style is of some practical use. Its prevalence as a management style is not surprising. However, as we evolve beyond a resource-based economy to a service and knowledge economy, theory x management becomes a barrier to progress.
In an open labour market, the negative consequences of theory x management styles are more easily identified and corrected. A competitive labour market has a way of self-correcting, with good employment and management practices rewarded with greater employee loyalty and reduced turnover. The challenge of improving management techniques in the UAE is made more difficult by our historical lack of labour market mobility, and our “low conflict” culture.
Since the inception of UAE employment law, employers have tended to have the stronger position over their employees. Such a position, coupled with long resignation notice periods, threats of work bans or loss of gratuity, often leads to employees tolerating poor management practices.
Our preference for harmonious relations in the workplace can work to the advantage of overly directive and controlling managers. Superiors might fail to correct a theory x manager’s poor behaviours because of a fear of conflict.
It is critical that we modernise our management techniques to match our infrastructural and technological advances.
But what steps can a manager take to be less theory x and more theory y?
• Be a reflective practitioner
Good managers are reflective practitioners. Take the time to reflect and think about your experiences and try to understand what role you have played in a situation, and how your actions might have made things worse instead of better.
• Don’t micro-manage
Micro-management, workplace surveillance and lack of trust in employees is the plague of poor management practice. Express your vision and set your subordinates goals that will help to realise that vision. If you micromanage high skill employees, they won’t stay with you for long. Support and trust professional employees to do the job they are qualified to do, but hold them accountable if they don’t deliver.
• Be willing to have the “hard talk”
Accountability is key to good management. You should be comfortable with providing autonomy to skilled employees, but when performance targets are not met employees must be held to account. Don’t allow an excuse culture to develop in your organisation.
• Educate yourself
There are innumerable training courses and educational programmes that can enhance your management skills. Managers need to evolve and grow just as organisations and economies do. Good managers are always striving to learn more and be better.
James Ryan is an associate professor of organisational behaviour and HRM at United Arab Emirates University.
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