Organisations and assumptions about people: how do we view people?

Whether it is films or books, "The American Dream" is often portrayed and that is why we also get to know the assumptions underlying this through a European lens. At the basis of this idea is the strong assumption that people are responsible for their own destiny and if something goes wrong then there is always a cause. Either you have done something wrong yourself or it is due to someone else. An individual is then responsible for finding out who is at fault, learning something from it and dealing with it. Based on this assumption, there is a strong preference within organisations for individualised programmes in which an individual who accepts stress must learn to solve it by themself. So there is a fairly strong predisposition to blame the "victim." Programmes that are more focused on the environment (organisational health) receive little or no attention from this point of view. This may seem far from the Belgian workplace, but closer to home we also see examples in which assumptions and the changing of them, for example through a forced change of context, have an enormous influence on how an organisation works. We see a concrete example of this within organisations in the aftermath of the tragic attacks in Maalbeek. This event seriously disrupted train traffic in the following weeks. As a result, a variety of employees from Brussels based companies were forced to work at home.This caused a paradigm shift for many managers who, until then, had doubts about whether their people would take responsibility for working from home. I still vividly remember an astonished supervisor who told me that "his people had really worked". Here too, we often see initiatives on personal stress management, time management or conflict management based on the assumption that it is all about personal responsibility while the broader context is not covered. Our assumptions about people, colleagues and employees are therefore the first assumptions that should tackle. Because if there is an idea or assumption about a certain group of employees that this group "cannot be changed," you will often be right so mindset research also teaches us.

Even today, the basic question remains as to whether we see people within companies as people in need of help looking for direction, or as autonomous and agile. When McGregor published his groundbreaking work 'The human side of enterprise' in1960, he would never have been able to suspect that the Theory X (people are lazy and need control) versus TheoryY (people are looking for their own responsibility and impact) could remain so up to date in 2018. After all, further investigations have not only resulted in a measurement scale to better estimate what exactly the assumptions of managers about employees look like but also to demonstrate the impact of these assumptions on culture and commitment within an organisation. It appears that a management style that is in line with Theory Y contributes to a higher effective commitment and contributes to a better "Leader-Member-exchange". The management style based on Theory X is not to establish a relationship with increased commitment or LMX.

In our pursuit of agility, we therefore first look for ways to get to know the prevailing assumptions about employees (at different levels), to challenge these assumptions and to tackle them starting from the question "how do we see people?" This can be achieved by starting with surveys on behaviour (eg. do you think that we need to exercise more budget control so that people do not deviate from the proposed guidelines?). It can also be achieved by gauging assumptions with the help of propositions about attitude (eg. most of our employees have ambition) or trust (eg. in our organisation you pay more attention to yourself because people tend to abuse your good nature). This can happen on different hierarchical levels and also best in both directions - top down and bottom up. With regard to the different levels, an executive manager is also someone's employee, even if that means the Board of Directors. In both directions it may well be that there is a discrepancy between two people. For example, an employee can consider himself to be very autonomous by answering in the affirmative to the question "I would like to be given the opportunity to solve problems related to my work autonomously,"while their line manager sees it completely differently.  Although there are already proven constructs around professional human assumptions, detecting, challenging and changing these within an organisation in an Evidence Based way certainly requires an investment. But the Flemish saying 'know what kind of meat you have in the pot' certainly applies when it comes to an agile company culture. Or to say it in the words of the seventeenth century writer Jacob Cats: “A seller needs one eye only because they know their customers beforehand whereas a buyer needs a hundred eyes."