‘Theory X’ and ‘Theory Y’ are theories of human motivation and management. They were created and developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s.

These theories describe two contrasting models of workforce motivation applied by managers in human resource management, organizational behavior, organizational communication and organizational development. According to the models, the two opposing sets of general assumptions of how workers are motivated form the basis for two different managerial styles. Theory X stresses the importance of strict supervision, external rewards, and penalties: in contrast, Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision.

Theory X

Theory X is based on pessimistic assumptions of the average worker. This management style supposes that the average employee has little to no ambition, shies away from work or responsibilities, and is individual-goal oriented. Generally, Theory X style managers believe their employees are less intelligent than the managers are, lazier than the managers are, or work solely for a sustainable income. Due to these assumptions, Theory X concludes the average workforce is more efficient under “hands-on” approach to management.[1] The ‘Theory X’ manager believes that all actions should be traced and the responsible individual given a direct reward or a reprimand according to the action’s outcomes. This managerial style is more effective when used to motivate a workforce that is not inherently motivated to perform. It is usually exercised in professions where promotion is infrequent, unlikely or even impossible and where workers perform repetitive tasks.[2]

According to Douglas McGregor, there are two opposing approaches to implementing Theory X; the “hard” approach and the “soft” approach. The hard approach depends on close supervision, intimidation, and imminent punishment. This approach can potentially yield a hostile, minimally cooperative work force that could harbor resentment towards management. The soft approach is the literal opposite, characterized by leniency and less strictly regulated rules in hopes for high workplace morale and therefore cooperative employees. Implementing a system that is too soft could result in an entitled, low-output workforce. McGregor believes both ends of the spectrum are too extreme for efficient real world application.[3] Instead, McGregor feels that somewhere between the two approaches would be the most effective implementation of Theory X.

Overall, Theory X generally proves to be most effective in terms of consistency of work. Although managers and supervisors are in almost complete control of the work, this produces a more systematic and uniform product or work flow. Theory X can also benefit a work place that is more suited towards an assembly line or manual labor type of occupation.[4] Utilizing theory X in these types of work conditions allow the employee to specialize in a particular area allowing the company to mass produce more quantity and higher quality work, which in turns brings more profit.

Theory Y

“Theory Y is almost in complete contrast to that of Theory X”. Theory Y managers make assumptions that people in the work force are internally motivated, enjoy their labor in the company, and work to better themselves without a direct “reward” in return.[5] Theory Y employees are considered to be one of the most valuable assets to the company, and truly drive the internal workings of the corporation.[6] Also, Theory Y states that these particular employees thrive on challenges that they may face, and relish on bettering their personal performance.[2] Workers additionally tend to take full responsibility for their work and do not require the need of constant supervision in order to create a quality and higher standard product.[4]

Because of the drastic change compared to the “Theory X” way of directing, “Theory Y” managers gravitate towards relating to the worker on a more personal and relatable level, as opposed to a more conductive and teaching based relationship.[5] As a result, Theory Y followers may have a better relationship with their higher ups, as well as potentially having a healthier atmosphere in the work place.[4]

In comparison to “Theory X”, “Theory Y” adds more of a democratic and free feel in the work force allowing the employee to design, construct, and publish their works in a timely manner in co-ordinance to their work load and projects. A study was done to analyze different management styles over professors at a Turkish University. This study found that the highly supervised Theory X management affected the research performance of the academics negatively. In general, the study suggests that the professional setting and research based work that professors perform are best managed with Theory Y styles.[5]

While “Theory Y” may seem optimal, it does have some drawbacks. While there is a more personal and individualistic feel, this does leave room for error in terms of consistency and uniformity.[3] The workplace lacks unvarying rules and practices, and this can result in a inconsistent product which could potentially be detrimental to the quality standards and strict guidelines of a given company.[1]

Choosing the management style

For McGregor, Theory X and Y are not opposite ends of the same continuum, but rather two different continua in themselves. In order to achieve the most efficient production, a combination of both theories may be appropriate. This approach is derived from Fred Fiedler‘s research over various leadership styles known as the contingency theory. This theory is based on 3 dimensions: Leader-member relationship, degree of task structure, and the leader’s position power.[7]

What are you – A Theory X person or a Theory Y person

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