Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor, an American social psychologist, proposed his famous X-Y theory in his 1960 book 'The Human Side Of Enterprise'. Theory x and theory y are still referred to commonly in the field of management and motivation, and whilst more recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model, Mcgregor's X-Y Theory remains a valid basic principle from which to develop positive management style and techniques.


McGregor's XY Theory remains central to organizational development, and to improving organizational culture.


McGregor's X-Y theory is a salutary and simple reminder of the natural rules for managing people, which under the pressure of day-to-day business are all too easily forgotten.


McGregor maintained that there are two fundamental approaches to managing people. Many managers tend towards theory x, and generally get poor results. Enlightened managers use theory y, which produces better performance and results, and allows people to grow and develop.


Theory x ('Authoritarian Management' Style)

– The average person dislikes work and will avoid it he/she can.

– Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.

– The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.


Theory y ('Participative Management' Style)

– Effort in work is as natural as work and play.

– People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.

– Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.

– People usually accept and often seek responsibility.

– The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

– In industry the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilised.





Characteristics of The x Theory Manager

What are the characteristics of a Theory X manager? Typically some, most or all of these:


    results-driven and deadline-driven, to the exclusion of everything else


    issues deadlines and ultimatums

    distant and detached

    aloof and arrogant


    short temper


    issues instructions, directions, edicts

    issues threats to make people follow instructions

    demands, never asks

    does not participate

    does not team-build

    unconcerned about staff welfare, or morale

    proud, sometimes to the point of self-destruction

    one-way communicator

    poor listener

    fundamentally insecure and possibly neurotic


    vengeful and recriminatory

    does not thank or praise

    withholds rewards, and suppresses pay and remunerations levels

    scrutinises expenditure to the point of false economy

    seeks culprits for failures or shortfalls

    seeks to apportion blame instead of focusing on learning from the experience and preventing recurrence

    does not invite or welcome suggestions

    takes criticism badly and likely to retaliate if from below or peer group

    poor at proper delegating – but believes they delegate well

    thinks giving orders is delegating

    holds on to responsibility but shifts accountability to subordinates

    relatively unconcerned with investing in anything to gain future improvements



How you can manage upwards your X theory boss:

Working for an X theory boss isn't easy – some extreme X theory managers make extremely unpleasant managers, but there are ways of managing these people upwards. Avoiding confrontation (unless you are genuinely being bullied, which is a different matter) and delivering results are the key tactics.


    Theory X managers (or indeed theory Y managers displaying theory X behaviour) are primarily results oriented – so orientate your your own discussions and dealings with them around results – ie what you can deliver and when.


    Theory X managers are facts and figures oriented – so cut out the incidentals, be able to measure and substantiate anything you say and do for them, especially reporting on results and activities.


    Theory X managers generally don't understand or have an interest in the human issues, so don't try to appeal to their sense of humanity or morality. Set your own objectives to meet their organisational aims and agree these with the managers; be seen to be self-starting, self-motivating, self-disciplined and well-organised – the more the X theory manager sees you are managing yourself and producing results, the less they'll feel the need to do it for you.


    Always deliver your commitments and promises. If you are given an unrealistic task and/or deadline state the reasons why it's not realistic, but be very sure of your ground, don't be negative; be constructive as to how the overall aim can be achieved in a way that you know you can deliver.


    Stand up for yourself, but constructively – avoid confrontation. Never threaten or go over their heads if you are dissatisfied or you'll be in big trouble afterwards and life will be a lot more difficult.


    If an X theory boss tells you how to do things in ways that are not comfortable or right for you, then don't questioning the process, simply confirm the end-result that is required, and check that it's okay to 'streamline the process' or 'get things done more efficiently' if the chance arises – they'll normally agree to this, which effectively gives you control over the 'how', provided you deliver the 'what' and 'when'.


And this is really the essence of managing upwards X theory managers – focus and get agreement on the results and deadlines – if you consistently deliver, you'll increasingly be given more leeway on how you go about the tasks, which amounts to more freedom. Be aware also that many X theory managers are forced to be X theory by the short-term demands of the organisation and their own superiors – an X theory manager is usually someone with their own problems, so try not to give them any more.


Comments on Theory X and Theory Y Assumptions

These assumptions are based on social science research which has been carried out, and demonstrate the potential which is present in man and which organizations should recognize in order to become more effective.


McGregor sees these two theories as two quite separate attitudes. Theory Y is difficult to put into practice on the shop floor in large mass production operations, but it can be used initially in the managing of managers and professionals.


In "The Human Side of Enterprise" McGregor shows how Theory Y affects the management of promotions and salaries and the development of effective managers. McGregor also sees Theory Y as conducive to participative problem solving.


It is part of the manager's job to exercise authority, and there are cases in which this is the only method of achieving the desired results because subordinates do not agree that the ends are desirable.


However, in situations where it is possible to obtain commitment to objectives, it is better to explain the matter fully so that employees grasp the purpose of an action. They will then exert self-direction and control to do better work – quite possibly by better methods – than if they had simply been carrying out an order which the y did not fully understand.


The situation in which employees can be consulted is one where the individuals are emotionally mature, and positively motivated towards their work; where the work is sufficiently responsible to allow for flexibility and where the employee can see her or his own position in the management hierarchy. If these conditions are present, managers will find that the participative approach to problem solving leads to much improved results compared with the alternative approach of handing out authoritarian orders.


Once management becomes persuaded that it is under estimating the potential of its human resources, and accepts the knowledge given by social science researchers and displayed in Theory Y assumptions, then it can invest time, money and effort in developing improved applications of the theory.


McGregor realizes that some of the theories he has put forward are unrealizable in practice, but wants managers to put into operation the basic assumption that:


– Staff will contribute more to the organization if they are treated as responsible and valued employees.


Theory z – William Ouchi

First things first – Theory Z is not a Mcgregor idea and as such is not Mcgregor's extension of his XY theory.


Theory Z was developed not by McGregor, but by William Ouchi, in his book 1981 'Theory Z: How American management can Meet the Japanese Challenge'. William Ouchi is professor of management at UCLA, Los Angeles, and a board member of several large US organisations.


Theory Z is often referred to as the 'Japanese' management style, which is essentially what it is. It's interesting that Ouchi chose to name his model 'Theory Z', which apart from anything else tends to give the impression that it's a Mcgregor idea. One wonders if the idea was not considered strong enough to stand alone with a completely new name… Nevertheless, Theory Z essentially advocates a combination of all that's best about theory Y and modern Japanese management, which places a large amount of freedom and trust with workers, and assumes that workers have a strong loyalty and interest in team-working and the organisation.


Theory Z also places more reliance on the attitude and responsibilities of the workers, whereas Mcgregor's XY theory is mainly focused on management and motivation from the manager's and organisation's perspective. There is no doubt that Ouchi's Theory Z model offers excellent ideas, albeit it lacking the simple elegance of Mcgregor's model, which let's face it, thousands of organisations and managers around the world have still yet to embrace. For this reason, Theory Z may for some be like trying to manage the kitchen at the Ritz before mastering the ability to cook a decent fried breakfast. Learn more about Theory Z