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The Modern-day Relevancy Of Theory X and Theory Y

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar February 11, 2023

In this post, I would like to take the time to shed light on a golden oldie management concept: Theory X vs. Theory Y. Despite being developed in the 1950s, Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y continues to be influential in modern management theory and practice. Why is this? And what is the relevance to modern management contexts?

Over the last few decades, organizations have faced the challenge of choosing between two conflicting approaches to managing their people.

The first approach, known as the classical school, emphasizes the need for clear lines of authority, defined roles, and ranks equal to levels of responsibility.

The second approach, known as the participative approach, focuses on involving employees in decision-making processes to increase their motivation.

These are also known as Theory X and Theory Y. And you can probably guess which one we prefer.

In fact, one could argue that by defining this theory, the first major steps to defining engagement in the workplace were taken. Basically, the rebellion started with this.

“One of the key challenges for most traditional workplaces is to move from a Theory X mindset to a Theory Y mindset, which requires a foundational shift in the way we think about human motivation and potential.”

What is Theory X and Theory Y?

MIT management professor Douglas McGregor's “Theory X and Theory Y” distinguishes between the assumptions about human motivation underlying these approaches.

Basically, Management Theory X and Theory Y are two personality-based styles.

Theory X assumes that people dislike work. People must be coerced, controlled, and directed toward organizational goals to get them to work.

On the other hand, Theory Y asserts that people are naturally interested in their work, desire self-direction, and are capable of solving business problems creatively.

McGregor ultimately concluded that the participative approach, or Theory Y, is the more desirable option. (Yeah, we got that too.)

Sadly, there are still a lot of Theory X managers for some reason.

Theory X management

Theory X management can be roughly split into two variations: the hard approach and the soft approach.

The hard approach is characterized by micromanagement, intimidation, anger, and punishment. You see this primarily in vertical hierarchical structures, where this approach is deemed necessary for managing unmotivated employees who need a high level of oversight to get work done—as if they are spiteful children who won’t behave unless you give them a juice box or something.

The soft approach, on the other hand, involves attempting to change the attitudes and behavior of employees by building trust and being more lenient and forgiving.

This approach may involve praising even small accomplishments and improving work satisfaction by endowing the job with prestige that it may not inherently have. This is sort of a patronizing (i.e., condescending) way of motivating staff.

Nevertheless, both the hard and soft approaches are still based on the assumption that employees are inherently lazy, apathetic, and uneducated, which can lead to workplace inequity and toxic work culture.

Theory Y management

Theory Y says that team members find meaning and dignity in their work and, as a result, perform well without much supervision.

These employees are motivated by an internal drive, can work independently, and are expected to produce high-quality work.

Obviously, there are several other advantages to managing employees using the Theory Y approach.

Workers who fit into this category tend to have better relationships at work—both with management (if there is middle management, not with flat organizations) and their colleagues.

Moreover, Theory Y staff is also believed to be consistently more productive.

However, there might also be some disadvantages to Theory Y management. Some argue that Theory Y may overlook the class of employees who require more leadership guidance and external motivation, which might eventually lead to a loss of productivity.

The move from X to Y

The million-dollar question then becomes how one can move from a Theory X mindset to a Theory Y mindset.

To make this change, you will need to make some significant changes in your approach and beliefs on treating and motivating people. Here are some concrete steps you might want to take:

  • Recognize that employees are capable and trustworthy and therefore do not need to be controlled via a formal managerial hierarchy. That is (obviously) a great place to start.

  • Start believing that people can act autonomously, take initiative when motivated, and honor their commitments when they choose to make them autonomously.

  • Empower employees with the authority to make all major decisions that involve their own work so they can take ownership of their work. This helps foster a sense of autonomy and entrepreneurship.

  • Encourage radical transparency and open communication among team members. This helps to create a sense of shared responsibility among team members and serves as a mechanism for peer control.

  • Provide team members with the resources and support they need to be successful in their roles. This involves giving them the authority, resources, tools, equipment, and technology necessary to do their jobs effectively.

  • Foster a working climate that supports employee growth and development. This might involve providing opportunities for training and professional development and creating a supportive and collaborative culture.

By adopting these beliefs and practices, we can all transform towards a dominant Theory Y mindset and create a more engaging work environment.

The million-dollar question then becomes how one can move from a Theory X mindset to a Theory Y mindset.
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Future-proof

To cut a long story short, the theory may be old, but it is not quite outdated just yet.

One of the key challenges for most traditional workplaces is to move from a Theory X mindset to a Theory Y mindset, which requires a foundational shift in the way we think about human motivation and potential.

By doing so, all companies can create a work environment that promotes meaning, autonomy, and mastery.

Just the way we like it.

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Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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