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Theory X and Theory Y — looking at motivation

After interviewing managers to find their views and attitudes on work, management theorist Douglas McGregor came up with two models. He called them Theory X and Theory Y.

These were first described in McGregor’s 1960 book, “The Human Side of Enterprise”.

Theory X assumes people dislike work and do what they can to avoid it. This leads to the following:

  1. Because people hate work, bosses have to force, threaten or bribe them before they will work hard enough.
  2. People like being ordered about, they seek security in authority and go out of their way to avoid taking on responsibility.
  3. Money is the main motivating force. Issues to do with personal security come second.
  4. The only creativity most people are able to display is when it comes to avoiding work or finding ways of getting around management edicts.

We need to work, not just for the money

On the other hand Theory Y says people need to work as much as they need to rest or play.

Work is an important part of a person’s psychological growth; many people find it inherently interesting and even enjoy working. This gives rise to four more statements:

  1. People are generally happy to direct themselves towards any acceptable goal or target.
  2. Self-discipline is more effective and, sometimes, more severe than any external direction. Under the right conditions people will seek out and accept responsibility.
  3. Once they have met certain basic needs, people are more likely to be motivated by their internal need to realise their full potential than any base incentive.
  4. Everyone is basically creative and capable of intelligence, most of the time, managers underuse these qualities.

McGregor regards the two theories as basic attitudes. Most managers fall squarely into one camp or the other but sometimes the theory one follows depends on particular circumstances. For example, armed services depend on Theory X, so do many factory managers.

Although his research took place before modern knowledge-based industries developed, McGregor recognised Theory Y style management was better for problem solving. For the most part knowledge workers will be operating along Theory Y lines. However there are some companies and bosses that still subscribe to Theory X.

McGregor believed that if you treat people according to one of these theories, they’d act along the lines expected. In other words, one conclusion of Theory X and Theory Y is if you assume people are lazy, they will be.