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Back to the Future: Are You a Theory Xer or Yer?

September 8, 2009
Updated March 3, 2015

Workplace 1 Just when you think you’re getting it you start getting confused. In my case it’s about management and leadership, two inter-related fields I’ve been studying for almost two decades. There’s an enormous amount of fluffy, feel-good (at times self-serving) literature out there. I like to add value to the ‘conversation’ on leadership, but then again I’m contributing to the overabundance of news, views and opinions.

I wanted to go back in time to re-read some of the more substantive writers on management and leadership. So I thought, ‘How about Douglas McGregor,’ who wrote the acclaimed “The Human Side of Enterprise” in 1960 (I was five years old at the time living in Battle Creek, Michigan). Now I know how Michael J. Fox felt when he went back in time. In this post, I’ll briefly describe Theory X and Y and then highlight some of McGregor’s observations 49 years ago.

The way in which managers interact with their subordinates is based on their assumptions about human behaviour. These assumptions begin to be formed when we’re young, and as we age our various experiences further solidify them further. Organizations posses their own cultures, which are either sustained by passing down managerial assumptions and practices to new managers, or they are blown apart by new renegade CEOs who wish to recreate their organizations.

McGregor described the assumptions underlying Theory X as:

1) People have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it

2) Because of this dislike for work, people must be ‘coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment’ to get them to perform

3) People prefer to be directed in their work, shunning responsibility and ambition

He believed that these assumptions were not a theory but in reality determined management strategy in organizations. It was about the ‘tactics’ of control and telling people what to do in order to achieve organizational objectives.

McGregor_X_Y In contrast, Theory Y deals heavily with interpersonal relationships and the creation of a work environment where people are encouraged to commitment to the organization’s objectives. But to live and work in this world requires a very different set of assumptions:

1) People do not inherently dislike work, instead seeing it as a source of satisfaction, depending on the conditions

2) People will direct themselves in working towards organizational objectives, once they have committed to them

3) Committing to these objectives is directly related to the rewards associated with achieving them

4) Under the right conditions, people will not only accept responsibility but seek it out

5) People will usually exercise a high degree of creativity in attempting to solve organizational problems

6) The intellectual capacities are only being partially used in organizations

One of the more compelling sections in his book is on the climate of relationships. McGregor provides the example of a factory superintendent who was known for screaming and swearing at his men. He gives this boss the title ‘bull of the woods.’ The paradox here is that the personnel people, who were carrying out training for managers at the time, couldn’t understand why a manager who operated in this manner could still be highly respected by his staff. Sound crazy? Well, morale and productivity were at high levels in this factory.

Although the superintendent was tough it was in reality superficial. He demonstrated consistently his concern for the welfare of his staff, going so far as to helping those who needed some financial help until payday or others who had a family crisis. He was exceedingly fair in how he treated his subordinates, and in particular solidly backed them when he felt that management was not being fair. An example is when he resigned and walked out of his superior’s office when senior management would not back down on an issue. Management chased him out to the parking lot and immediately capitulated.

image These actions lead to this superintendent being held in very regard by his staff, and one major consequence was strong morale and work output. However, McGregor adds that in addition to these characteristics that a manager must also have upward influence in the organization in order to achieve certain objectives.

McGregor makes another key observation, noteworthy because he’s addressing organizations in the late 1950s yet it is highly relevant today. It’s the ‘P’ word – participation, a concept that became very popular in the nineties and which has remained so. When management uses the façade of participation to get employees to accept key decisions, and when used repeatedly, the result is cynicism and checking-out from further participatory exercises. As he states: “…[management] will lose far more than [it] had hoped to gain by ‘making them feel important.’”

To bring this into today’s reality, check out this post Tough-Assed Leadership that profiled Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sylvio Marchionne. Here’s a CEO who’s tough but fair and who knows what has to be done to salvage a once-proud American company. There’s also 10 lessons for Aspiring Leaders post that provides practical ways of engaging people so that they can contribute fully to their organizations.

Take a moment to share your views and experiences.

What would you identify as the most important things that managers must attend to if they wish to be effective in their jobs?

If you consider yourself a leader, be sure to check the rearview mirror regularly to ensure you have followers.
(James Taggart)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2009 9:45 pm

    Thanks for this, Paloma. You certainly have raised an incredibly interesting question, especially considering how the world has changed due to globalization, aspects that McGregor would not have considered. My late father, who was a mechanical engineer and who did a lot of consulting in East Africa, Egypt, India and Pakistan, used to comment on the very different cultures and their approach to work. My dad was Scottish by birth and had an intense Protestant work ethic drilled into him.

    As a Canadian, I admit that we’re not necessarily a powerhouse of innovation and productivity. But look at America, which is where McGregor did his research. Despite America’s problems, it still ranks near the top in productivity and innovation.

    The Middle East has rested its laurels on petroleum, but along the way has created a restless class of disenfranchised youth. Over the coming decades it will be fascinating to see how geo-politics alter the balance of economic power as countries like China, India, Brazil, and South Korea continue to climb the value chain. It will become an economic slugfest, with those countries that embrace technology adoption and that focus on human capital development that will leave others in the dust.

  2. Paloma Pentarian permalink
    September 11, 2009 8:38 pm

    Dear Jim,

    I never thought about comparing these two theories in this way, but would like to comment. I live in the Middle East and think that different management practices are required by different cultures. In the Middle East, many people indeed want to get out of work as much as possible, as doing work seems to lower one’s social status. Employees don’t often seem motivated by Theory Y ideas, but unfortunately often require Theory X ideas.



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