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Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor (1906 -1964) was a lecturer at Harvard University and became the first Sloan Fellows Professor at MIT.

His Theory X and Theory Y was detailed in The Human Side of Enterprise, published in 1960.

 

What is it?

Essentially Theory X and Theory Y describe two opposing views of people at work that will influence management style.

Managers can be said to follow either view of their workforce.

Theory X is often said to describe a traditional view of direction and control.

Theory Y implies a more self directed workforce that takes an interest in the goals of their organisation and integrates some of their own goals into these.

 

Theory X

Theory X assumes that: -

 

  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it unless directly supervised.


  • Employees must be coerced, controlled and directed to ensure that organisational objectives are met.


  • The threat of punishment must exist within an organisation.


  • In fact people prefer to be managed in this way so that they avoid responsibility.


  • Theory X assumes that people are relatively unambitious and their prime driving force is the desire for security.

 

Theory Y

Theory Y effectively takes the opposite view.

 

It assumes that: -

 

  • Employees are ambitious, keen to accept greater responsibility and exercise both self-control and direction.


  • Employees will, in the right conditions, work toward organisational objectives and that commitment will in itself be a reward for so doing.


  • Employees will exercise their imagination and creativity in their jobs if given the chance and this will give an opportunity for greater productivity.


  • Theory Y assumes that the average human being will, under the right conditions, not only accept responsibility but also seek more.


  • Lack of ambition and the qualities of Theory X are not inherent human characteristics but learned in working environments that suffocate or do not promote Theory Y behaviours.

 

Links with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow viewed John McGregor as a mentor and was a supporter of his theory and each utilised each other's theories in their own work.

McGregor grouped Maslow's hierarchy into 'lower order' Theory X needs and 'higher order' Theory Y needs, suggesting that those behaviours at the top of his hierarchy linked with Theory Y behaviours.

 

Criticism of Theory X / Theory Y

Nowadays McGregor's theory is seen as outdated, representing two extremes.

Theory X is perhaps visible in low paid or menial work but employees in those situations will move on in search of positions with Theory Y conditions if they are motivated.

Personal development, management training and even general perceptions of behaviour are against a Theory X outlook towards work.

There is no doubt that this outlook would have been more prevalent in the 1960s when McGregor created his theory.

Before he died McGregor started working on a new Theory that he called Theory Z to address these criticisms.

Unfortunately he died before this could be widely published and the ideas have since faded from mainstream management theory.

They were, however, landmark ideas at their time and now form an important part of the historical study of management theory.

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