Monday, October 06, 2008

Theories X and Y

Theories X and Y

Oct 6th 2008

Theory X and Theory Y was an idea devised by Douglas McGregor (see article) in his 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise”. It encapsulated a fundamental distinction between management styles and has formed the basis for much subsequent writing on the subject.

Theory X is an authoritarian style where 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 … [it] reflects an underlying belief that management must counteract an inherent human tendency to avoid work”. Theory X is the style that predominated in business after the mechanistic system of scientific management had swept everything before it in the first few decades of the 20th century.

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.

Theory X assumes that individuals are base, work-shy and constantly in need of a good prod. It always has a ready-made excuse for failure—the innate limitations of all human resources. Theory Y, however, 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.

Theory Y gives management no easy excuses for failure. It challenges them “to innovate, to discover new ways of organising and directing human effort, even though we recognise that the perfect organisation, like the perfect vacuum, is practically out of reach”. McGregor urged companies to adopt Theory Y. Only it, he believed, could motivate human beings to the highest levels of achievement. Theory X merely satisfied their lower-level physical needs and could not hope to be as productive. “Man is a wanting animal,” wrote McGregor, “as soon as one of his needs is satisfied another appears in its place.”

There are parallels with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Maslow was indeed greatly influenced by McGregor. So much so that he tried to introduce Theory Y into a Californian electronics business, but found that the idea in its extreme form did not work well. All individuals, he concluded, however independent and mature, need some form of structure around them and some direction from others. Maslow also criticised Theory Y for its “inhumanity” to the weak, and to those not capable of a high level of self-motivation.

In his comic classic “Up the Organisation”, Robert Townsend wrote powerfully in support of Theory Y:

People don’t hate work. It’s as natural as rest or play. They don’t have to be forced or threatened. If they commit themselves to mutual objectives, they’ll drive themselves more effectively than you can drive them. But they’ll commit themselves only to the extent they can see ways of satisfying their ego and development needs.

Further reading

Lorsch, J. and Morse, J., “Beyond Theory Y”, Harvard Business Review, May–June 1970

McGregor, D., “Leadership and Motivation: Essays”, MIT Press, 1966; 1969

McGregor, D., “The Human Side of Enterprise”, McGraw-Hill, 1960; annotated edn, McGraw-Hill, 2006

Townsend, R., “Up the Organisation”, Michael Joseph, 1970; reprinted as “Further Up the Organisation”, Coronet, 1985

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