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Theory X and Theory Y are theories of human motivation developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s that have been used in human resource management, organizational behavior, and organizational development. They describe two very different attitudes toward workforce motivation. McGregor felt that companies followed either one or the other approach.
In this theory management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can. Because of this workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of controls developed. A hierarchical structure is needed with narrow span of control at each level. According to this theory employees will show little ambition without an enticing incentive program and will avoid responsibility whenever they can.
According to McGregor, most managers (in the 1960s) tend to subscribe to Theory X, in that they take a rather pessimistic view of their employees. A Theory X manager believes that his or her employees do not really want to work, that they would rather avoid responsibility and that it is the manager's job to structure the work and energize the employee. The result of this line of thought is that Theory X managers naturally adopt a more authoritarian style based on the threat of punishment.
In this theory management assumes employees are ambitious, self-motivated, anxious to accept greater responsibility, and exercise self-control and self-direction. It is believed that employees enjoy their mental and physical work activities. It is also believed that employees have the desire to be imaginative and creative in their jobs if they are given a chance. There is an opportunity for greater productivity by giving employees the freedom to be their best.
A Theory Y manager believes that, given the right conditions, most people will want to do well at work and that there is a pool of unused creativity in the workforce. They believe that the satisfaction of doing a good job is a strong motivation in and of itself. A Theory Y manager will try to remove the barriers that prevent workers from fully actualizing their potential.
McGregor and Maslow's hierarchy
McGregor's work was based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He grouped Maslow's hierarchy into "lower order" (Theory X) needs and "higher order" (Theory Y) needs. He suggested that management could use either set of needs to motivate employees but that better results could be obtained by meeting the Theory Y needs.
Characteristics of the X Theory Manager
- Results-driven and deadline-driven, to the exclusion of everything else
- Issues deadlines and ultimatums
- Distant and detached
- Aloof and arrogant
- Short temper
- Issues instructions, directions, edicts
- Issues threats to make people follow instructions
- Demands, never asks
- Does not participate
- Does not team-build
- Unconcerned about staff welfare, or morale
- Proud, sometimes to the point of self-destruction
- One-way communicator
- Poor listener
- Fundamentally insecure and possibly neurotic
- vengeful and recriminatory
- Does not thank or praise
- Withholds rewards, and suppresses pay and remunerations levels
- Scrutinises expenditure to the point of false economy
- Seeks culprits for failures or shortfalls
- Seeks to apportion blame instead of focusing on learning from the experience and preventing recurrence
- Does not invite or welcome suggestions
- Takes criticism badly and likely to retaliate if from below or peer group
- Poor at proper delegating - but believes they delegate well
- Thinks giving orders is delegating
- Holds on to responsibility but shifts accountability to subordinates
- Relatively unconcerned with investing in anything to gain future improvements
Working for a Theory X boss
Working for an Theory X boss isn't easy; certain Theory X managers can be extremely unpleasant, but there are ways of managing these people upwards. Avoiding confrontation (unless you are genuinely being bullied) and delivering results are the key tactics.
Theory X managers (or indeed Theory Y managers displaying Theory X behaviour) are primarily results-oriented, so orient your own discussions and dealings with them around results, i.e. what you can deliver and when.
Theory X managers are facts- and figures-oriented, so cut out the incidentals, be able to measure and substantiate anything you say and do for them, especially reporting on results and activities.
Theory X managers generally don't understand or have an interest in the human issues, so don't try to appeal to their sense of humanity or morality. Set your own objectives to meet their organisational aims and agree these with the managers; be seen to be self-starting, self-motivating, self-disciplined and well-organised. The more the Theory X manager sees you are managing yourself and producing results, the less they'll feel the need to do it for you.
Always deliver on your commitments and promises. If you are given an unrealistic task and/or deadline, state the reasons why it's not realistic, but be very sure of your ground. Don't be negative; be constructive as to how the overall aim can be achieved in a way that you know you can deliver.
Stand up for yourself, but constructively. Avoid confrontation. Never threaten or go over their heads if you are dissatisfied.
Today the theories are seldom used. They are thought to express extreme positions that are not realistic. Most employees fall somewhere in between these extremes and the theories are of little help in everyday human resource management decisions. However Theory X and Theory Y are still important terms in the field of management and motivation. Recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model, but McGregor's X-Y Theory remains a guiding principle of positive approaches to management, to organizational development, and to improving organizational culture.
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