Simple Is Hard, Complex Is Easy, Simplistic Is Impossible

By Quick, Thomas L. | Training & Development Journal, May 1990 | Go to article overview

Simple Is Hard, Complex Is Easy, Simplistic Is Impossible


Quick, Thomas L., Training & Development Journal


Simple Is Hard, Complex Is Easy, Simplistic Is Impossible

The simple truth is that management practices today are either too complex or too simplistic, says Quick in this excerpt from his latest book.

"Over here," Fritz Roethlisberger used to say, referring to the Harvard Business School where he taught, "we make complex things easy; over there," pointing to the main Harvard campus on the other side of the Charles River, "they make simple things complex."

Roethlisberger, a member of Elton Mayo's team at Hawthorne and a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior, followed his own guidelines. His work is eminently readable and admirably straightforward. But maybe he pared down his prose too much. These days, who reads Fritz Roethlisberger? How many people know who he was?

Complicated theories

In management today, we seem, for some mysterious reason, to tend toward the complex or the simplistic. Simple is mistrusted--suspect. Take my field of motivation. From my surveys, I've concluded that most management training in employee motivation and productivity uses either Maslow or Herzberg as its theory base.

Most people are familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. From the lowest need, which is physiological, a person moves up the hierarchy to satisfy safety needs, then on to those related to belongingness and love, and then to esteem, until finally he or she is working to fill a growth need, self-actualization. Maslow says that a person feels a particular need only when the needs lower in the hierarchy are predominantly satisfied. Thus, a person probably won't seek the esteem of others until he or she has satisfied the yearning for belongingness and love.

I personally doubt that is true, and experimental projects to validate the hierarcy have been inconclusive. I've never been able to explain to managers how to recognize which need an employee might be working on at a given time. And I'm not at all sure what constitutes a need predominantly satisfied. Maslow is complicated.

Frederick Herzberg's two-factor theory also is complicated. There are ambiguities such as the role of salary. He says it is not a motivator; yet, if it is a recognition of achievement, it is. And there are gaps in his list of motivators. Overall, however, the two-factor theory, as far as it goes, has been validated through 30 years of application. Yet, as a basic explanation of human behavior, it is complex.

A simple theory

In my work in motivation, I use a startlingly simple theory: Expectancy Theory. Some psychology students may know it as social learning theory. It states that human behavior is a function of * the value of the reward the doer perceives as coming from the chosen behavior; * the doer's expectation that the reward is attainable without undue risk or effort.

You do things because they are valuable to you. And you do them because you have confidence that you can be successful in doing them. The theory applies to your choice of a career, a job, a task, or what you'll have for lunch. When you make a choice, you choose the option that provides you with the most valuable reward, whether that is money, or satisfaction, or achievement, or just plain physical gratification. However, you have to be convinced that the reward is attainable through reasonable effort. Most people will not take immoderate risks or work superhumanly to get what they want.

Expectancy Theory is so simple and practical. Kurt Lewin, the famous psychologist, used to say, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." For purposes of management, Expectancy Theory is marvelously simple and practical. Managers are in a position to increase the value of the work for employees, and they can help increase the employees' expectations of getting what they value from the work. On that foundation, you can build a whole management system, all designed to make the work more rewarding and doable.

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