Pointy haired, or fluffy?

Oct 21, 2008 07:43 · 736 words · 4 minute read

[Crossposted from the Headshift blog]

A few posts ago I mentioned some models of human motivation that might help answer the question, “why would anyone bother contributing to social media?” The best known model is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but as several commenters pointed out, it’s a pretty simplistic model that doesn’t really stand up to much close scrutiny.

There’s any number of alternative models to choose from (intriguingly, most of the research seems to date from the early Sixties for some reason). But before looking at any of those, it’s worth considering another theory that has a bearing on the way in which social media gets adopted in organisations.

In 1960, Douglas McGregor extended Maslow’s model and came up with what’s become known as Theory X / Theory Y. In the neat bipolar way beloved of social scientists, he divided managers into two camps - the pointy-haired Theory Xers, who think their employees are work-shy layabouts that need to be coerced into action, and who avoid responsibility in search of security above all.

The flip side are the cuddly Theory Ys, who look benignly on their teams as self-directed responsibility seekers, creating innovation at all layers of the organisation.

Diagnosing which camp a person falls into has become known in Headshift circles as the “Facebook test” - if mention of the ubiquitous social networking platform causes foaming at the mouth and mentions of web blocking software, the chances are that you’re dealing with a member of the Theory X camp. To them, social media is a Waste Of Time - give employees access to Facebook and they’ll spend all their time poking and throwing sheep at each other.

Theory Ys tend to have been there, done that when it comes to Facebook and the like - in fact you’re just as likely to have connected with them on LinkedIn as you are to be talking to them face-to-face. I’m exaggerating both cases to make a point here, but the underlying rationale remains.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between the two extremes. There are people who will “abuse” access to social media, in just the same way as people have “abused” web access more generally, or email, or the phone, or their typewriters and so on back to the days that a few sneaky flint axeheads were tucked inside furs. That’s human nature, and it’s going to take more than a few years of Web 2.0 to change that.

But the fact that there’s a long-term trend here tells us something else - it’s not the tool that’s at fault. If your teams are slacking off on Facebook when they should be doing whatever else it is they’re supposed to be doing, isn’t that a management issue? After all, if they were spending all day gossiping at the coffee machine, you’d probably deal with it by asking/telling them not to, rather than banning hot drinks.

It’s not a new issue. Going back ten or fifteen years, email in organisations was by no means universal - and I remember distinctly a conversation at the time with a finance director who banged the desk while declaring that email was a waste of time, and would be used in his firm over his dead body. Fast-forward to today, and a refusal to countenance email would be professional suicide in most businesses.

There’s partly an issue of demographics at work here, as well. Anyone under the age of about 25 has grown up immersed in an online world, and to them it’s part of the furniture. It’s the older generations (which I’ve got to put myself into, seeing as I was into well into double-figures by the time I had my first email address) who are having to make the adjustments. So when the Generation Y kids come into the workforce, they’re often taken aback that the kinds of tools they’ve taken for granted are regarded as something exotic or dangerous.

The question for organisations is whether they’re going to take advantage of the possibilities that social tools provide - while managing around the occasional downsides - or whether the response will be to put barriers in the way. And if your unspoken message is that you don’t value the new kinds of skills that the next generation of your employees are arriving with, what effect will that have on your ability to find and retain the best people?