Especially given how much research we have in the area. This goes back nearly 100 years to when Elton Mayo formulated his Human Relations Theory of Management in the 1930s. He noted the way motivation increased even when lighting was reduced, simply because employees were observed.
Similarly, Deci and Ryan formulated their ‘self-determination theory’ in 1985 which showed the powerful impact on motivation of autonomy, relationship and achievement at work.
The ability to motivate knowledge workers is also important – a failure to do this will reduce the discretionary effort that produces great new ideas. As Amabile and Kramer showed in 2010, achieving progress has a huge impact on employee engagement.
Then in 2012, a landmark study in Denmark of successful SMEs by Hakonsson et al showed how organisations with a focus on innovation developed leaders who encouraged a culture of autonomy rather than one of control.
With all of this mounting evidence it is therefore even more shocking that some of the largest employers in the public and private sectors flout these rules. I speak of course of the BBC and John Lewis & Partners.
The BBC and John Lewis
Both organisations have been in the news for large-scale reorganisations and cut-backs, with the BBC focused on its news division where it has laid off 450 employees in a bid to save £80M by March 2022.
The broadcaster’s ‘modernisation’ programme has seen programmes such as the Victoria Derbyshire show, which has an independent newsfeed, being axed in favour of the creation of ‘story team’, which provides a reduced menu of stories for a range of media platforms. The place for original journalism is now subordinate to this pooled approach, one that eschews specialist knowledge and experience.
Meanwhile, John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners has created a single management structure, losing around 75 senior management head office roles with a predicted overall cost saving of around £100 million.
The merging of functions across the two parts of the business represents another effort at pooling, with the arrival of a new chairman from the public sector with no retail experience perhaps also showing a jettisoning of a specialist skills set.
The overall driver, according to the outgoing chairman Charlie Mayfield, is to enhance innovation, the speed of decision-making and the alignment of the organisations’ operating model with its strategy.
Will these strategies deliver the enhanced motivation and discretionary effort on which organisations depend for their survival? Are their strategies aligned with their people policies?
In fact, the pooling or jettisoning of skills found in both organisations flies in the face of the emphasis both in self-determination theory and in Amabile and Kramer’s research on achievement as a vector to motivation.
Not only are journalists in the BBC being asked to eschew skills relating to particular media, but one target of the changes, Victoria Derbyshire, has claimed that her programme met all the objectives set while still getting the chop.
What, moreover, are people at John Lewis and Waitrose to make of the appointment of a new chairman who lacks the retailing skills that many will have acquired over many years in the organisation?
The movement of people into pools in the BBC and into reconstituted management teams at John Lewis and Waitrose will alter relationships, a key plank in Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory.
Additionally, autonomy looks to be a casualty in the new system of pooled ideas at the BBC, and Victoria Derbyshire’s allegation that her first inkling of the axing of her programme was from the media not managers, suggests an absence of the focus on the individual that Mayo identifies as so motivating.
It appears that many of the valuable lessons of organisation theory acquired over nearly 100 years of research and observation are being ignored by those steering change in the public and private sectors in Britain.
This is cause for concern. After all, one expects bus drivers to have an appropriate license and heart surgeons to have followed an appropriate programme of education and experience.
Managers have the potential to influence the material and psychological wellbeing of those over whom they wield responsibility. It is only fair to ask why those in positions of seniority are making decisions that are unlikely to increase staff engagement, innovation or mental wellbeing.
Only time will tell what the fallout from this exercise in rebutting robust models for human organisation will bring. However, sensible organisations will seek a close alignment between competitive and people strategies. This will not only deliver high levels of motivation and innovation but will also deliver greater customer centricity.
Gloria Moss is a professor at the IPE Management School Paris and a training and development practitioner