and Theory Y revisited
How relevant are
Douglas McGregor's theories today?
“With every passing year, McGregor’s message becomes ever more relevant,
more timely, and more important.”
Peter F. Drucker (May, 2000)
We are now well into the second half-century since the world
of management theory was given a kick in the butt by the introduction of
Theory X and Theory Y.
In 1960, four years before his death, Douglas McGregor,
the first to apply the findings in behavioural science to
the world of business,
published his best-selling The Human Side of Enterprise that had a huge
influence on managerial thought and practice.
It feels good to look at it again and see what
validity it still has and what influence it continues to bring to bear on
management thinking, particularly since advances in technology since McGregor
have, paradoxically, made McGregor's ideas more relevant, as they
have also made companies more aware of the human element in business enterprise.
I'll start by re-stating the basic theories.
Douglas McGregor (19061964) was a social psychologist who
became a professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
He had been greatly impressed by Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs
(1) with working efficiency being shown to depend
on behaviour and motivation. McGregor applied Maslow's concept of
self-actualization and esteem to the concept of creating a symbiosis between
manager and worker. In similar fashion to Maslow's structure of lower and
higher needs, McGregor identifies two types of manager and uses Theory X for the former and Theory Y for the latter.
Works on the presumption that people subscribing to this
theory have an inherent dislike
for work and will avoid it whenever possible
They have to be controlled and coerced, or threatened with
punishment if they are to achieve organisational objectives rather than
They have little or no ambition, spurn responsibility, and
actually prefer to be controlled.
They are resistant to change and their main objective is security.
People in this theory are as happy working as they are
They are not lazy and will be self-directing when committed
to established objectives.
Commitment to objectives is an end in itself.
They welcome responsibility.
People subscribing to Theory Y will solve problems creatively and
They have under-utilized potential.
"Intellectual creativity cannot be 'programmed' and directed the
way we program and direct an assembly line or an accounting
department. This kind of intellectual contribution to the enterprise
cannot be obtained by giving orders, by traditional supervisory
practices, or by close systems of control. Even conventional notions
of productivity are meaningless with reference to the creative
intellectual effort. Management has not yet considered in any depth
what is involved in managing an organization heavily populated with
people whose prime contribution consists of creative intellectual
— from Douglas McGregor's essay, New Concepts of
So how has management responded to these theories and what
has been their effect? Traditionally the old style "boss" had
followed the path of Theory X, but over the years an enlightened management
moved over to Theory Y. The Theory X boss rarely interacted with their
workforce apart from issuing orders or providing discipline. The Theory Y
manager collaborates with staff, gives and receives feedback, and places
motivation above discipline.
Matthew Stewart (2) suggests that following
"one management guru after
another rediscovered Theory Y, packaged it in new
language, and claimed it as his or her invention. Tom
Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Charles Handy, to
name three, launched their highly successful careers on the basis of
But although he singles out Peter Drucker as a special case who "could be called a Y-man
avant la lettre,since he began to promote a version of the theory
before McGregor gave it its name.", he nevertheless expresses
doubt that "the world has caught up with our wisdom about it." One
"does not have to spend much time in the cubicles these days to appreciate
how the jargon of Theory Y has evolved into an Orwellian Newspeak."
To resolve the confusion that
continues to belabour the McGregor theories, Stewart proposes two collateral
theories. Theory U (for Utopian) and Theory T (for Tragic). Theory U
attributes conflict as originating always in misunderstanding between people.
Theory T considers conflict to be endemic to human relations and arises "from
real divergences of interest."
"The difference between U and T, in the final analysis,
is that one is easy and the other is hard. Theory U
assures us that our problems can be solved by changing
our view of the world. Theory T says that the
solutions may require actually changing the world. U
tells us that we can bring everyone together with the
right words. T replies that we’ll probably have to make
some compromises, too. U rests its case on the fairness
of its schemes. T emphasizes the fairness of its
processes. U guarantees a happy ending. T promises
only the temporary postponement of disaster." (op.cit.)
“We are all Theory Y people now - at least when it comes to delivering
or receiving motivational talks.”
Matthew Stewart - Oxford Leadership Journal, June 2010
One has merely to
examine the vast material on the internet, offering management
skills and services, to appreciate the validity of Matthew Stewart's
comment on the way "management gurus" latched on to McGregor's
theories, and it is not the intention of this article to follow the
same path, but merely to summarise what was, what is, and what may
be, and to offer some suggestions for further study.
First, then, how as
a manager do you identify whether you respond to the designation of
Theory X or Theory Y? Well, as a simple "rule of thumb", if
your instant reaction to an unexpected situation or behaviour from
an employee is to criticise or demean, you are almost certainly a
Theory X manager. On the other hand, if your first reaction is
to examine the situation and try to ascertain what has gone wrong in
a non-judgemental way, that is the behaviour of a Theory Y manager.
therefore, regardless of whether a manager tends more towards Theory
X or Theory Y, there can be no excuse for disrespectful behaviour.
It is not a matter of one theory being good and the other being bad.
Theory Y is clearly what modern business practice and teaching
favours, but it is equally true that lazy employees do exist and are
an undesirable element in a forward-looking and effective
organisation. What management needs to do is to concentrate on
cooperation rather than internal conflict; to motivate rather than
criticize; to ensure commitment by both employee and employer; and
to provide a high-performance, effective management team. The key
terms for managers must be respect for others and by others,
promotion of self-esteem, confidence and happiness.