b-school, Business, HRM, Management, MBA, Thoughts

Soft and hard human resource management (utilitarian instrumentalism versus developmental humanism)

In 1960 Douglas McGregor developed two sets of theories that would shape two antagonistic currents in human resource management: Theory X and Theory Y. They are based on radically different assumptions.

Charles Chaplin working Theory X style

Theory X is the classical managerial distrust approach. People are lazy by nature and only pursuing self-interests. That means that there are two different and opposite sets of interests: those of the company and those of its workers. It’s management’s task to induce the appropriate behaviour in workers so as that they actions pursue the accomplishment of the company’s goals, not their own. If there ever was a carrot and a stick, that’s the stick. Thus there’s a case for the existence of “correctives” and “coercion”.

It may be argued that this view doesn’t exactly reflect human nature but the organisations’ nature: they were born long ago, and one of the first theories that were developed (they have become the classic perspective) regarding on how to manage the workforce was scientific management. Those theories regarded people as resources in the same way that machinery was also a resource. People had to be assigned fixed, repetitive (I could add unfulfilling and alienating) tasks. That was only one hundred of years ago and there’s still a lot of Taylorism in us.

By the way that matches with many of our current economic theories when we say that people as economic agents are always looking to maximise their perceived utility. That’s what we mostly assume that consumers will do. But then there are still economic realities that cannot be explained from that point of view.

Regarding HRM many authors classify this approach as a classic approach, hard HRM or the Michigan model. Ever seen a manager that style? I bet you have, many of them.

Vicent le Moign, a freelance designer, working Theory Y style

Theory Y is the opposite approach. Instead of thinking of people as lazy machines deals with their emotions, feelings and motivations. People may actually want personal realisation and work can be one the ways to attain it. People like things well done, making a difference. Managers, thus, must enable them to do so and keep their motivation high. People don’t hate working, are not lazy and can be self-responsible. That way coercions are no longer needed.

Following this theory, compensation is still important, but not exclusively attained through money but also many implicit compensations are of utmost importance. Under the right circumstances, people will seek higher responsibilities, not reject them. The individuals can be creative and proactive, values that the organisation must nurture to ensure their commitment.

This approach is called the Harvard model, or soft HRM.

Fortunately it works. Unfortunately it does not always work. Theory Y integrates the personal objectives with those of the corporation, but that cannot always be done. Here comes the dilemma between the two models. In fact neither of them completely represents reality, because people can behave in very different ways. And I’m not referring to different people but everyone of us.

That means that we must use both models to describe reality. And that’s what many managers use. Sometimes a hard approach, sometimes a soft approach.

But that mixed approach holds a contradiction in itself, although if we don’t go deep into the theory we may not notice. Both models are holding two basic and irreconcilable fundamental ideas: self-interest versus self-direction, distrust and trust, negative and positive. How can both be mixed at a higher deductive level?

In the meanwhile, it has never been proved that committed workers are more productive than closely controlled ones. And, after all workers know that HRM considerations are always in a lower precedence than business strategy considerations, so the company, whatever it might say, has a clear precedence for hard shareholder goals over people goals. Some recent models have been developed to try to link employee satisfaction to results through the value chain. The same way as Balanced Scorecards try to enforce soft issues that have been marginal to date in front of long established hard issues. But still, if you think of your company… which are the most relevant business goals? Do you really think that people is among them?

(To think more about this, you may review the past posts: To commit or not to commit (treating and spoiling yourself at your post and The wide gap between theory and practice in human resource management)


16 thoughts on “Soft and hard human resource management (utilitarian instrumentalism versus developmental humanism)

  1. Pingback: HRM and the triple bottom line (do we really believe in people?) « Gabriel’s scarcity rent - it’s management stupid!

  2. charles okidegbe says:

    is a good appro[ch to mix both hard and soft hrm.as explicitly stated here,it is a way of making employee see themselves as part of an organisation not just an asset,however the truth is that they are still an asset though important.

  3. bhattathiri says:

    Management needs those who practice what they preach
    “Whatever the excellent and best ones do, the commoners follow,” says Sri Krishna in the Gita. The visionary leader must be a missionary, extremely practical, intensively dynamic and capable of translating dreams into reality. This dynamism and strength of a true leader flows from an inspired and spontaneous motivation to help others. “I am the strength of those who are devoid of personal desire and attachment. O Arjuna, I am the legitimate desire in those, who are not opposed to righteousness,” says Sri Krishna in the 10th Chapter of the Gita. The philosophy contained in the pages of the Bhagavad Gita is today considered relevant and essential to our understanding of ourselves even in the western world. Leading business schools in the USA such as Kellogg have included the Bhagavad Gita as an elective subject in their curriculum. Terms such as ‘Karma Capitalism’, ‘Exit Plan’ and the likes are being explained on the basis of the teachings of Lord Krishna and the message of the Bhagavad Gita.

  4. Venrisa Samuel-Arjoon says:

    i think using both hard and soft management can really help a business. It definitely shows the lines of authority and even though the environment is as such the employees maintain the attitude of business people

  5. Nariba Herbert says:

    i think this info was not only informative and interesting but it also raised a lot of important questions to be answered and a lot critical points to consider.

    I was also impressed wiith the fact that writer critically evaluated both ‘sides’ and brought the reality to the theory.

  6. Pingback: An unexpected impact of the crisis in project management (no, they are not lazy) « Gabriel’s scarcity rent - it’s management stupid!

  7. Nerisa Nerisa says:

    your comments are enriching my classroom assignment on ‘soft” and “hard” HRM… thank you all !

  8. Tlotliso,Lesotho, National university of Lesotho says:

    i think both theories can be applied in one organision at the disgression of the manager given the set goals and objectives!

  9. I think if we are to be realistic and try to employ critical thinkimg, given both the models and their points of contradiction, then, definately, there is no way out of mixing the two approaches. But for a very creative manager, the two models can be mixed only to a point where they do not contradict.

  10. Alan Chipopwe says:

    The two models may differ in approach but they are all used to achieve the organizational goals and objectives.

    The best is to use the model that fits the organizational goals at that particular time or adopt both medels.

  11. Rhody Mashavira Great Zimbabwe University says:

    the two theories are both applicable depanding on type of an organisation,culture of people employed.in Zimbabwe theory x is more applicable.However both theories can be applied simulteneousely because at an organisation there workers who need strong attention and others who are self mortivated

  12. The two approach es are very effective in developing an organization towards the ways of achieving vision but these should be handled properly by the managers based on the situation of the organization. Besides, the process and the components of the models should be practiced and understood correctly to exert to the process of practical development of the organization

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