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Theory X and Theory Y

MIT Sloan School of Management professor Douglas McGregor developed his Theory X and Theory Y in the late 1950s, several years after Maslow published his hierarchy of needs. According to McGregor, the type of views managers held about their workers fell into two general categories, which had a significant affect on managers’ own behaviour:

  • Theory X: People are inherently lazy and selfish.
  • Theory Y: People are innately productive and cooperative.

McGregor’s Theory Y was reinforced by Maslow’s work on “enlightened management” (which came several years later), which suggested that employees viewed work as important for meeting higher level needs such as self-esteem and self-actualization. That is, most people want to do well at work. Theory X opposes this theory, suggesting an employee’s only interest in a job is money.

McGregor did not espouse one theory over another as more suitable for all situations. Similarly, Maslow later issued caution against the universal applicability of his work on enlightened management (based on Theory Y principles). Theory Y's motivating principles hold best in “good times,” that is, they rely on strong relationships between managers and subordinates as well as real opportunities for professional development and rewards. By contrast, in situations where the work is not rewarding, such as if the economy is in a downturn or the workplace lacks trusting relationship, Theory X's motivating principles are more likely to hold.

Both X and Y assumptions are held innately by managers today. These assumptions are often subconscious, ingrained and hard to challenge. As a result, these theories are powerful determinants of supervisory behaviour.1

McGregor’s book, “The Human Side of Enterprise,” (1960) is rated the fourth most influential book in management in the twentieth century.2

 

 

References:
1. Goldman, J. J. (1983). The Supervisor's Beliefs about People and the Supervisory Plan. The Clearing House.
2. Bedeian, A. G. and Wren, D. A. Most Influential Management Books of the Twentieth Century. Retrieved from: http://www.bus.lsu.edu/bedeian/articles/MostInfluentialBooks-OD2001.pdf