Theory X, Theory Y and the strange case of the expenses system

A comment from one of my colleagues about my last wittering mentioned those scary two words – “expenses system”. If my arguments about positive reinforcement and business systems are true, shouldn’t expenses systems be really effective because, at the end of the day, isn’t getting some money the biggest positive reinforcement of them all? Shouldn’t we all love doing our expenses?

Before I answer that, I wanted to talk a little bit about Theories X and Y of management. You can find a slightly more accurate (and academic) explanation of this here, but here’s my version…

Theory X is an approach to management that sees all people as inherently out to screw the system. People dislike work, are lazy, and management’s role is to perpetually kick people up the backside because otherwise nothing will ever get done.

Theory Y is an approach to management that sees all people as ambitious, hard-working and always out to do their best, and do the best by their employers. Management’s role in this world is to help nuture and show direction.

The reality is, of course, somewhere inbetween (or, inevitably, Theory Z).

So what’s this got to do with expenses systems? Well, I would contend, the problem with motivation on expenses systems is that they take a hardline Theory X approach, and quite frankly, there is little that is less motivating than a Theory X manager. Little, that is, than a Theory X manager that is holding onto money that is actually the employee’s own money in the first place. Or, as most companies like to call them, Expenses Systems.

The problem lies in the fact that there is an inherent unfair balance in the ways in which processes and systems are implemented in most organisations to manage the administration of out-of-pocket expenses. I’ve paid some of my money to help fund activities to the benefit of my employer, and then my employer makes me jump through a series of hoops that mean that I’m made to feel guilty about asking them to give me my money back to me. When it comes to expenses, most employers have serious trust issues with their employees.

How might this look different in a world of positive reinforcement? Well, this is an issue of process rather than system. I’ve worked in a few models over the years: my last employer would give me either local currency in folding cash, or a credit card that they settled the balance on – the deal was that I needed to supply them with receipts to show what I had spent on their behalf (and that expenditure would be signed off by my boss). Having worked in much less trusting environments before, this felt a very good way to work and I always submitted my receipts in good time. I know, however, that many of my colleagues didn’t and chasing them was a full time job for the poor finance team.

Much more common is the way in which I work today – and have in most organisations in the past. I spend the money, and I need to then claim that money back (which needs to be signed off by my manager). I might be supplied with a credit card, but the balance is paid from my own bank account, not from that of my employers. This, for me, seems to be a very untrusting relationship, and I think that in this form of process people are going to moan about it (I know I do) – but that the ire will be directed generally at the IT systems in place to administer the process, and they will generally be painful to use because they have been designed in a Theory X framework.

However possibly the most interesting approach came a few years back an employer where, driven by cost analysis, they worked out that the average end-to-end cost of the expenses approval processes was about £75. Given that the average expense was substantially less than that value, they changed the processes so that employees would self-approve any expense claim under the value of £100 because, ultimately, it was going to be cheaper. There was a strong element of Theory Y going on here (as well as some Theory X from the fact that you still needed to submit your receipts) – but inherent in the approach was it made sense to trust employees because, in the most part, it was cheaper for the company and less belittling for the employees…

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