Theory X and Y for Managers

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Back in the 1950s and 60s, MIT School of Management student Douglas McGregor published a theory on different types of workers. His main ideas broke down into two options, Theory X and Theory Y. The two theories divide employees; those that inherently dislike work and those that inherently do like work. The writings go on to specify certain things; namely

Theory X

  • Work is inherently distasteful to most people, and they will avoid work whenever possible
  • Most people are not ambitious, have little desire for responsibility, and prefer to be directed
  • Most people have little aptitude for creativity in solving organizational problems
  • Motivation occurs only at the physiological and security levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • Most people are self-centered and must be coerced to achieve organizational objectives
  • Most people resist change
  • Most people are gullible and unintelligent </aside>

✴️ Theory Y

  • Work can be as natural as play if the conditions are favorable
  • People will be self-directed and creative to meet their work and organizational goals
  • People will be committed to their quality and productivity objectives if rewards are in place that address higher needs
  • The capacity for creativity spreads throughout organizations
  • Under these conditions, people will seek responsibility </aside>

For more details, this Wikipedia article breaks it down well.

Traditionally, these theories have been used to train managers on how to deal with their teams. By putting people into simple buckets, a manager can identify a workers motivation and then come to a conclusion on how to best manage that person.

As an example, let’s assume an employee on your team is constantly late, has a bad attitude and is less effective in their job compared to other employees. What, as a manager, are you supposed to do about it?

Abraham Maslow, building on McGregor’s theories, authored a paper, “Theory Z,” in which he put the responsibility on managers to assign work to employees based on what they would most enjoy doing (i.e. where they would get the most fulfillment). What’s missing from these theories though is that managers too can fall into multiple buckets of motivations.

Let me suggest the equivalent of Theory x and Y for managers. From there, we can start to uncover how a Theory Z might fit in.

Theory X for Managers:

  • Managers inherently believe those they manage are lazy and unmotivated
  • Managers believe their team has little aptitude for creativity, are not ambitious and are not capable of responsibility
  • Managers believe their team is incapable of higher level work
  • Managers believe their team is incapable of change </aside>

✴️ Theory Y for Managers:

  • Managers believe they can create a work environment that makes the work fun, almost play-like
  • Managers understand that people are creative, motivated and intelligent
  • Managers believe that their team wants to do good work and operate at as high a level as possible
  • Managers believe they can affect positive change and drive a business to new levels </aside>

So, what does this mean for managers?

Anyone reading this is most likely to be someone that believes they can learn, grow and improve over time. The goal here is to define certain default assumptions a manager might be making so we can start to correct bad assumptions and narrow in on specific areas in which to improve. These theories, X and Y for managers, are intended to provide a framework. Using a bit of honest self reflection, most of us will realize we fall into one of these two areas more frequently than other (we assume certain things about those on our team). To really become an effective manager, we need to be able to pair McGregor’s Theories & these suggested theories to find action steps to take. The below 2X2 table offers a quick and dirty analysis of what we can do.

Employee XEmployee Y
Manager XBoth parties think work is inherently bad. Very few options here; likely need to rethink where everyone belongs.A disconnected manager with a highly engaged employee is likely to be replaced as a manager.
Manager YAn engaged manager with a disengaged employee can (1) find a way to help the employee connect with work, (2) find another area of the company the employee could be effective in (3) Provide the employee the tools needed for them to figure out where they can thrive.An engaged manager with an engaged employee is the best case scenario for a business. Managers will need to routinely make sure there are new challenges and learning opportunities for the employee to continue to grow.
Table1.1: Theory X and Y combined for both employees and managers

The first takeaway to point out is that Theory X Managers, those who believe that employees are inherently lazy and unmotivated, are unlikely to stay in management long. It just doesn’t fit. A more senior manager, a business owner, or a group of individual employees are likely to have a disengaged manager ousted. In the event a disengaged manager stays in their role in perpetuity, the business itself is not likely to survive. Note here as well that it is assumed all personnel are observable within the work place. If no one is there to see a disengaged manager manage a highly engaged employee for example, there may not be any changes made for a long time.

The next takeaway to point out is that a highly engaged manager who has a disengaged employee has the responsibility for supporting them. The specific situation may dictate the appropriate action, but the point is that responsibility will fall in the hands of the manager.

The last think worth pointing out here is that as a manager, it’s possible (and encouraged) to share Theory X and Y with employees. Most people won’t have this kind of framework at the ready. Knowing it exists gives individuals the ability to hone in on why they are disengaged, what they do find themselves easily engaged by, and how to bridge that gap. A company with a more engaged work force will trend towards being a better place to work. A person with a more engaging work life will be more fulfilled both inside and outside of work.

Theory Z, then, boils down to the idea that managers and employees may both find themselves in a position where they either like or dislike their work (i.e. are engaged or not). Life changes, people change, companies change, work itself changes; the list of changes can be endless. As a manager, though, it’s your responsibility to deal with changes.

So, to be a great manager, implement these action items:

  • Identify your own default positioning (X or Y)
  • Identify where people on your team are (X or Y)
  • Plan out how to get the most people to the highest level of engagement (note, it will hardly be possible to get everyone there)

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