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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Agility and Fear

Frank Furedi argues that human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty. The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself (April 2007),

McGregor introduced the distinction between Theory X and Theory Y, referring to different beliefs about the behaviour and motivation of workers, which may be embedded in management practices and organization culture. Ouchi argued that McGregor's distinction doesn't work for all cultures, and identified a third theory, Theory Z, which he used to explain the behaviour of most Japanese companies and some Western companies.

Theory X refers to a set of beliefs in which workers are lazy, require constant supervision, and are motivated only by financial rewards and penalties.

Theory Y refers to a set of beliefs in which workers can be trusted to pursue the interests of the firm without constant supervision, and respond to a range of motivators.

Theory Z refers to a set of beliefs about lifetime commitment between employers and employees.


If we frame fear in terms of Theory-X, then it becomes fear-and-blame and we can all go tut-tut. But isn't there also a way of framing fear in terms of Theory-Y, without yoking it to blame? Performing artists may experience some stage-fright prior to producing an outstanding performance, and while excessive stage-fright may be debilitating, some degree of anxiety may be a positive stimulus. Are we to ban all forms of anxiety and uncertainty from the organization, so that everyone can feel cosy and safe?

And what about Theory-Z? If an organization is under existential threat, then the members collectively need to focus all their energy and creativity on restoring the viability of the organization, and it would be perfectly normal for them to be emotionally as well as intellectually engaged in this task. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

All I'm saying is that there are different types of fear, which may have different effects on organizational behaviour. Fear-and-blame is one particular type of fear, but there are other types.

Many workers rightly feel responsible for their work. In most organizations, employees or contractors are ultimately vulnerable to loss of status or loss of earnings if they fail to perform satisfactorily. A completely fear-free organization would be disengaged from its customers and environment, and therefore ethically problematic.

However, a caring organization may be able to attenuate some of this feeling of vulnerability, and provide some kind of safety net that allows people to take reasonable risks without too much fear of failure. Whereas an uncaring organization either fails to provide proper boundaries, or amplifies the sense of vulnerability by capricious and unjust management practices.


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