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Theory or Practice? Two sides of the same coin

In November 2022, as I was facilitating a leadership and supervisory skills training, I initiated a discussion regarding staff motivation. A heated debate arose when I highlighted about theories of motivation as taught in management and leadership courses. One side of the debate asserted that theories do not apply in real life and are therefore useless. One proponent of this line of thought went as far as stating that the theory taught in schools and colleges does not work in real life. He supported this argument by stating that his “practical” approach to accounting and audit that he has been using on the job was totally different from what he was taught in college – He is a fully qualified Certified Public Accountant. To him, theory is just knowledge that has no place on the job. On the other side was a group that argued that theoretical knowledge, though non always applicable in the workplace, is an important tool in building conceptual skills. Though not fully opposed to theoretical knowledge, they were not sure if it was fully applicable in real life.

While moderating the discussion, I posed questions regarding whether any of the participants had ever compared their working environment, pay, benefits or other job related factors to those of colleagues or industry peers. Each of the participants agreed that they both consciously and subconsciously compare themselves with others. They also agreed that they feel demotivated whenever they identify an aspect of inequity in regard to working conditions, remuneration and career progression amongst other comparable factors.

The foregoing question was followed with another in regard to whether they always quit their job whenever they identify inequity in the workplace. There was a general consensus quitting a job at the first perception of inequity would be a denial of reality. In other words, they agreed that inequity can never be eliminated completely since everyone’s view of equity is different. In addition, they stated that competition for power and (scarce) resources, also referred to as organizational politics, meant that there will always be stakeholders who will not have their aspirations met and desires fulfilled. In the words of one of the participants, delayed gratification and self-sacrifice are part of working life.

Once the discussion was concluded, I highlighted to the participants that we were discussing the applicability of the equity theory of motivation in real life. The theory states that people compare the outcomes and inputs of their own to the outcomes and inputs of others in similar situations. Outcomes refer to the rewards or benefits e.g. salary, working conditions etc. that people receive from employers, while inputs refer to the effort or resources that people put into a situation e.g. working hours. In this regard, they agreed that they had unknowingly applied the theory in their real life.

This scenario reminded me of many others where people refuse to obtain higher education or pursue continuing professional development since they perceive both initiatives to be loaded with “theory.” They therefore believe that the best and only way to learn is on the job since one is imparted with “practical” skills. They therefore perceive that theory and practice as mutually exclusive. On the other hand, I have come across people who perceive others as incompetent purely on the basis of low level of formal education. They believe that formal education is a precursor to on the job training. In their option, someone trained purely on the job cannot be competent.

The two schools of thought have some merits and demerits since the main difference between theory and practice is that theory refers to a set of ideas, principles, or concepts that explain how something works or why something happens, while practice refers to the actual application or implementation of those ideas, principles, or concepts in real-world situations. In other words, theory is more abstract and conceptual, whereas practice is more concrete and hands-on. Theory provides a framework for understanding and predicting phenomena, while practice involves applying that framework in a specific context to achieve a desired outcome.

There exist situations where theory lags behind practice especially where industry innovation is ahead of academia. To correct this anomaly, academic and training institutions should conduct research with a view to aligning course content with current industry practice. On the other hand, practice can also lag behind theory especially where a specific institution’s processes, procedures and controls are not at par with innovation. These institutions can therefore use academic and professional development courses to align themselves with current industry trends. With the foregoing, theory and practice are fully aligned and a person’s ability to apply knowledge acquired (theory) in real life situations (practice) is what will differentiate them from competition.

Dr. Weru Mwangi is the CEO & Lead Consultant at Ultimate Management Solutions, a firm specializing in training & consultancy in Finance, Governance, Strategy, Risk Management and Leadership Development.  He can be contacted on weru@umslgroup.com  

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