May 13, 2020
Bad Bosses In Covid-19
Douglas McGregor coined the descriptors Theory X and Theory Y bosses back in the 1960s. Basically, Theory X bosses doubted people working for them and felt their worst elements had to be watched carefully. Theory Y bosses saw the potential in their team and wanted to develop them further. It was not quite black and white, one was 100% good the other was 100% bad. It was more a question of where to sit on the scale in view of the team and circumstances you faced. Theory X bosses did have to deal with people who were not motivated and couldn’t be trusted. The problem became that they started from a negative position, rather than a neutral one. Another researcher into human motivation, Abraham Maslow, presciently warned us, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
Here we are today, with a lot of our staff out of sight, locked away at home. How do bosses know what they are doing? Have some bosses moved more to the Theory X side of the equation, expecting the worst behaviour from their people? Is this what you feel from your boss – suspicion, distrust, doubt? A Theory Y boss would trust the team to pull together during these hard economic times and work harder for the common good of the survival of the whole enterprise.
Theory X bosses are more likely to enter into the sordid world of power harassment with their attitudes and language when times get tough. They are likely to be more harsh in their words, adding innuendo and veiled threats if the team doesn’t keep production up. Fear is relied upon as the hammer and people are not left in doubt that they are disposable.
There is also the issue of firing people to save money or improve shareholder returns. In America, companies were very fast to furlough people, which is American English for sending you home without any salary, until things improve. Bad times brings out the worst in bosses and these are bad times indeed. In Japan, this sets up the tension between the solidarity of the group and the enterprise’s survival. There is a major difference between last resort and first impulse to fire people. There is a massive mental wall between “cut deep and early” and “we leave nobody behind”.
Once upon a time in Japan, when staff were plentiful and the resumes were many, being choosy was normal. Times changed with demographic downturns. Until February, we had a labour shortage across most industries, especially around hiring young people. Now the unemployment rate is rocketing, the number of jobs open relative to those seeking work is dropping. Small and medium companies, in particular areas like hospitality, retail and the service sector are going out of business. When people shortages reigned, bad bosses were lovey dovey, but now the faux smiling faces have been replaced with the original scowling issues.
The mark of a person’s character and true belief system is revealed in these Covid-19 times. Japan has done an amazing job of observing governmental requests to stay home. In Australia, we fine you over a thousand dollars for lockdown rule non-compliance, to keep our wild colonial boys and girls in line. Horses for courses. What about the boss in Japan? Are the worst boss aspects emerging and being given free license because of the times?
This virus will not last forever. Business will gradually reopen as it has in China, Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand as they have flattened the curve of outbreaks. Looking back at the boss’s language, behaviour, demeanour and outlook during the crisis, what will staff conclude about where they want to work? The demographic trend will last a lot longer than the virus and the realities of finding and keeping good people won’t switch course.
Keeping the team together, until the last yen and tear has been expended, makes sense in Japan. Bosses need to show their commitment to their people. The staff will show their commitment to the organisation with accepting salary cuts and furloughs if needed, and they will return. “Cut deep and early”, “protecting shareholder value”, “pragmatic choices” may work in other countries, but not in Japan. Start wielding Maslow’s hammer in your hand in haste and repent at leisure. When the dust clears, your people will know who you really are.