In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, MIT professor Douglas McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y, what he claimed were the two fundamental approaches to management.
McGregor had a passion for management, and he believed it could transform an organization.
“The limits on human collaboration in the organizational setting are not limits of human nature but of management’s ingenuity in discovering how to realize the potential represented by its human resources,” he said.
Here’s a run-down of McGregor’s two management styles, Theory X and Theory Y – and what they might mean for the modern workplace.
McGregor’s first management style is built on a simple theory: that employees are inherently averse to work.
“Theory X assumes that individuals are base, work-shy and constantly in need of a good prod,” writes the Economist. “It always has a ready-made excuse for failure – the innate limitations of all human resources.”
McGregor was informed by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and in Theory X, he suggests that employees are guided by lower-order needs – namely, food, shelter, safety, and security. In other words, they’re at work to get money to survive, not to get any career fulfilment. And so, once those lower-order needs are fulfilled (by simply having a job), workers are no longer driven to be productive.
With this in mind, McGregor identified two ways to deal with employees that are naturally disinclined to work. The “hard approach” is highly aggressive, with the use of coercion, threats, and close supervision to keep workers focused. The “soft approach” is the opposite, with managers taking a lenient stance to improve workplace morale, and in turn boosting productivity.
While neither of these approaches would work well on its own, McGregor felt that a combination of the two would be the ideal approach (if, of course, Theory X was accurate).
A manager using the Theory X approach, for example, would be authoritarian, strict, and extremely hands-on – while rewarding good work and productivity.
“. . . the emphasis is on ‘productivity, on the concept of a fair day’s work, on the evils of feather-bedding and restriction of output, on rewards for performance,’” explains the Economist.
The proponents of Theory X see it as a viable management style for workers doing menial, repetitive work, or workplaces where promotions or career progression isn’t possible. Maslow reportedly felt that the structure and direction of this theory was crucial, and that its counterpoint theory (more on that below) was inhumane to the weak and/or unmotivated.
However, most experts (including McGregor) have concluded that this theory isn’t viable, because it’s basic premise (workers are intrinsically averse to work) is false.
By contrast, Theory Y assumes that employees are internally motivated and inherently enjoy work.
“Theory Y is a participative style of management which ‘assumes that people will exercise self-direction and self-control in the achievement of organisational objectives to the degree that they are committed to those objectives.’ It is management’s main task in such a system to maximise that commitment,” writes the Economist.
While the hierarchy of needs in Theory X suggests that employees are guided by lower-order needs, Theory Y assumes the opposite – that higher-order needs like self-actualization and accomplishment are what push people to work hard.
As the Economist explains, Theory Y “assumes that individuals go to work of their own accord, because work is the only way in which they have a chance of satisfying their (high-level) need for achievement and self-respect. People will work without prodding; it has been their fate since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden.”
In this theory, management’s role is to do everything they can to facilitate their team’s inherent productivity. “. . . to innovative, to discover new ways of organising and directing human effort, even though we recognize that the perfect organisation, like the perfect vacuum, is practically out of reach,” wrote McGregor in his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise.
McGregor believed that Theory Y was the correct approach – and the only way to motivate employees to the top of their game.
Why neither is a viable option
Recent experts have argued that both Theory X and Theory Y are somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies. The Collaborative Leadership Network provides some valuable insight on this topic:
“The classic research on this came about through an accident in a British school system. A teacher was mistakenly told that her elementary students were backward and came from broken homes; thus they were troubled and not good learners. The teacher tried to be a good teacher, but she treated the students as if this description were true. On subsequent test scores, the children did fare poorly. Then somebody realized the mistake and told the teacher that these kids were actually quite bright and that their families supported their learning. The teacher started treating the kids as if they were bright and eager and OOPS they all brightened up and got eager. On the next round of test scores, they scored quite well. Good parents, good teachers, and good managers know that people respond to the way they are treated.”
While this anecdote may, on the surface, seem like corroboration of Theory Y, it’s actually more of a warning against making too many assumptions altogether. And that any management style needs to take into account a workplace’s own unique roles, team dynamics, and culture.