Theory X and Theory Y

Understanding Team Member Motivation

Douglas McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X takes a cynical view.

© iStockphoto/aaaachoo

What motivates employees to go to work each morning?

Many people get great satisfaction from their work and take great pride in it; Others may view it as a burden, and simply work to survive.

This question of motivation has been studied by management theorists and social psychologists for decades, in attempts to identify successful approaches to management.

Social psychologist Douglas McGregor of MIT expounded two contrasting theories on human motivation and management in the 1960s: The X Theory and the Y Theory. McGregor promoted Theory Y as the basis of good management practice, pioneering the argument that workers are not merely cogs in the company machinery, as Theory X-Type organizations seemed to believe.

The theories look at how a manager's perceptions of what motivates his or her team members affects the way he or she behaves. By understanding how your assumptions about employees’ motivation can influence your management style, you can adapt your approach appropriately, and so manage people more effectively.

Understanding the Theories

Your management style is strongly influenced by your beliefs and assumptions about what motivates members of your team: If you believe that team members dislike work, you will tend towards an authoritarian style of management; On the other hand, if you assume that employees take pride in doing a good job, you will tend to adopt a more participative style.

Theory X

This assumes that employees are naturally unmotivated and dislike working, and this encourages an authoritarian style of management. According to this view, management must actively intervene to get things done. This style of management assumes that workers:

  • Dislike working.
  • Avoid responsibility and need to be directed.
  • Have to be controlled, forced, and threatened to deliver what's needed.
  • Need to be supervised at every step, with controls put in place.
  • Need to be enticed to produce results; otherwise they have no ambition or incentive to work.

X-Type organizations tend to be top heavy, with managers and supervisors required at every step to control workers. There is little delegation of authority and control remains firmly centralized.

McGregor recognized that X-Type workers are in fact usually the minority, and yet in mass organizations, such as large scale production environment, X Theory management may be required and can be unavoidable.

Theory Y

This expounds a participative style of management that is de-centralized. It assumes that employees are happy to work, are self-motivated and creative, and enjoy working with greater responsibility. It assumes that workers:

  • Take responsibility and are motivated to fulfill the goals they are given.
  • Seek and accept responsibility and do not need much direction.
  • Consider work as a natural part of life and solve work problems imaginatively.

This more participative management style tends to be more widely applicable. In Y-Type organizations, people at lower levels of the organization are involved in decision making and have more responsibility.

Comparing Theory X and Theory Y

  • Motivation

    Theory X assumes that people dislike work; they want to avoid it and do not want to take responsibility. Theory Y assumes that people are self-motivated, and thrive on responsibility.

  • Management Style and Control

    In a Theory X organization, management is authoritarian, and centralized control is retained, whilst in Theory Y, the management style is participative: Management involves employees in decision making, but retains power to implement decisions.

  • Work Organization

    Theory X employees tend to have specialized and often repetitive work. In Theory Y, the work tends to be organized around wider areas of skill or knowledge; Employees are also encouraged to develop expertise and make suggestions and improvements.

  • Rewards and Appraisals

    Theory X organizations work on a ‘carrot and stick’ basis, and performance appraisal is part of the overall mechanisms of control and remuneration. In Theory Y organizations, appraisal is also regular and important, but is usually a separate mechanism from organizational controls. Theory Y organizations also give employees frequent opportunities for promotion.

  • Application

    Although Theory X management style is widely accepted as inferior to others, it has its place in large scale production operation and unskilled production-line work. Many of the principles of Theory Y are widely adopted by types of organization that value and encourage participation. Theory Y-style management is suited to knowledge work and professional services. Professional service organizations naturally evolve Theory Y-type practices by the nature of their work; Even highly structure knowledge work, such as call center operations, can benefits from its principles to encourage knowledge sharing and continuous improvement.

Tip 1:

Enough theory. Which approach do you prefer?

Do you work most effectively when your boss controls every part of everything you do? Or would this drive you mad, so that you'd just do what he or she wanted (and nothing more), look for another job, and then leave? Or would you prefer a boss who helps you to do your best, increasingly trusts your judgment, allows you to use your creativity, and step-by-step gives you more control over your job?

Which type of manager would you work for more effectively?

Learn from this! As it is for you, it will be for many of the members of your team!

Tip 2:

That said, different members of your own team may have different attitudes. Many may thrive on Theory Y management, while others may need Theory X management. Still others may benefit from an altogether different approach.

Mix and match appropriately.

Using the Theories

Understanding your assumptions about employees motivation can help your learn to manage more effectively. In order to understand McGregor’s theories in more detail, we suggest the following reading:

  • Douglas McGregor Revisited
    Published in 2000, this book looks at McGregor’s time-tested thinking on human motivation, and shows how his theories apply in today’s organizations.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (13)
  • Michele wrote This month
    Hi Sharron231,

    Turnover happens for many reasons. That said, your leadership style could be a factor that is contributing to it. What elements of theory X do you see yourself doing? What are your employees saying that would suggest what you need to change?

    Mind Tools Team
  • Sharron231 wrote This month
    I tend to manage more X Theory, but think of myself as a Y Theory Manager. Could that be why nobody wants to work for me and I see massive turnover?
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Tiffany, it sounds like you had a learning experience what can you share? Go back 50 - 60 years and X - Y was just a gender discussion it's interesting how times have changed.
  • Tiffany wrote Over a month ago
  • Mind1959 wrote Over a month ago
    I am new is manager and I had some traing some years ago abot the theort of X and Y but never really understood it but I do now. Brilliant learning in simple and understandable language.

    Thank you
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Prince,
    Indeed there is a big difference between simply being a boss and being a leader! Glad we have helped you gain some clarity!

    Thanks for the feedback, pleased to hear that you appreciate what we do here.
  • Prince wrote Over a month ago
    X is boss and Y is a leader
    thank u guys for making me visualize and realize the real style , thank u, love u guyz
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    and here I thought I was being so original. Oh well. Thanks for the information.

    The basic point is still the same one that Fidget made, that we have to look at the situation and the context and then decide what style works best. I'm going to try to remember that as I move up the ladder (hoepfully) and begin to have supervisory responsibilities myself.

    It will also help me to understand where my own boss is coming from sometimes.

  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Interestingly a guy called Ouchi proposed Theory Z in the 80s. Rather than a mix of X and Y, it actually tried to take Y further. It's rather out of fashion now I think. Ouchi focused on the new problems of the time - namely employee retention and loyalty (which are obviously still concerns for companies, but are dealt with in new ways). He proposed that American companies should learn from Japanese, to engender more loyalty between employer and employee.
    Anway, I just thought people might be interested to know that. And may be you can call the new theory X+Y instead!!
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    I see the importance of communicating when managing people. A manager can't just assume that his/her style is best for everyone and the employees have to take some responsilibly in getting the resources and support they need. If people felt free to communicate with one another then they could just say what they needed rather than stepping around the issue.

    I'm very forthright with what I need and I know what level of direction is appropriate for me in most situtions. This isnlt a black and white as McGregor's theory would suggest - there needs to be a "Z" which is the combination of the two sides. Finding people whose mgmt style is flexible enough for that is where I see the difficulty lying.

    My current boss is one of the good ones but there are so many duds I hear about. But I do come back to employee responsibility - if the finance guys in Fidget's example had been more assertive in their needs then perhaps the demise of their department could have been avoided.

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