Theory X and Theory Y

Within his book, The Human Side of Enterprise, Douglas McGregor describes two conflicting views (theories) of human nature and people’s attitudes toward work (Weinbach, 2008). These theories were labeled simple as Theory X and Theory Y. According to Weinbach (2008), these theories shouldn’t merely be seen as an explanation for individual staff behavior, but more as an indicator of why leaders treat staff as they do.

Leaders (managers) who adhere to Theory X assume that the average person:
  • Dislikes work and attempts to avoid it
  • Lacks ambition, wants no responsibility, and would rather follow than lead
  • Is self-centered and therefore does not care about organizational goals
  • Resists change
  • Act irresponsibly (Weinbach, 2008)

A Theory X type manager would be more inclined to use tangible rewards as incentives. They assume their authority is resented and adopt regulations that are designed to enforce compliance.

Leaders (managers) who adhere to Theory Y assume that:
  • Work is a natural activity for people
  • People will be self-directed to meet their work objectives if they are committed to them
  • People will be committed to their objectives if rewards are in place that address higher needs such as self-fulfillment
  • People will seek responsibility
  • Most people can handle responsibility because creativity and ingenuity are common in the population (Weinbach, 2008)

A Theory Y type manager acts in a way that communicates trust and a belief in staff member’s good intentions. They assume that staff members want to work toward organizational goal attainment and work to set up an environment that enhances growth (Weinbach, 2008).

This image should help further illustrate the difference between Theory X and Theory Y: Theory X and Y Image

Obviously, it’s quite rare to find a purely Theory X or Theory Y orientation in an organization. There is usually a blend of each with a tendency to lean towards one or the other. However, McGregor makes it clear that it’s important to be careful when assuming one theory to be true in the workplace. Managers with more of a Theory Y orientation might observe the behavior of a few staff members (laziness, self-centered, etc.) and become more Theory X oriented. On the other hand, managers who are more Theory X orientated are sometimes pleasantly surprised and become more Theory Y oriented when their staff members are hard working, seek responsibility, etc. (Weinbach, 2008). Regardless of which theory a manager lean towards, McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y causes managers to recognize employee differences. By doing so, managers can look beyond their own assumptions that might dictate their leadership behavior and begin accurately assessing their subordinates, as well as what motivates them (Weinbach, 2008).