March 13, 2017 Emily Lierle

XY Theory of Motivation and Management

xy theory

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 while more recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model, McGregor’s XY Theory remains a valid basic principle from which to develop positive management style and techniques. The XY Theory also remains central to organization design, and to improving organizational culture.

At Y Scouts, we find this especially interesting when examining how we connect people and companies to work that matters. Management can be done in several ways — but when done right, it moves the company forward.

The XY Theory proves a simple reminder of the natural rules for managing people, which (under the pressure of day-to-day business) may end up easily forgotten.

McGregor’s ideas suggest that there are two fundamental approaches to managing people. Many managers gravitate toward Theory X, and usually obtain poor results. Enlightened managers, on the other hand, use Theory Y, which produces better performance and results. Furthermore, it allows people to grow and develop.

Take a closer look at the XY Theory. Which type of manager are you — and which type of management do you prefer?

Theory X (‘Authoritarian Management’ Style)

  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it in various ways.
  • Thus, most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work toward organizational 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 organizational 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 organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • In industry the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilized.

Characteristics of the X Theory Manager

Perhaps the most noticeable aspects of XY Theory present themselves in the behaviors of autocratic managers and organizations which use autocratic management styles.

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
  • intolerant
  • issues deadlines and ultimatums
  • distant and detached
  • aloof and arrogant
  • elitist
  • short temper
  • shouts
  • 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
  • anti-social
  • 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
  • unhappy

How to Manage Upwards: Managing Your X Theory Boss

Working for an X theory boss isn’t easy – some extreme X theory managers make extremely unpleasant ones, but there are ways of managing them upwards. Avoid confrontation (unless you genuinely feel bullied, which presents a different matter) and deliver results.

  • Theory X managers (or indeed theory Y managers displaying theory X behavior) primarily remain results-oriented. So orientate your your own discussions and dealings with them around results – i.e. what you can deliver and when.
  • Also, Theory X managers prove facts and figures oriented. So, cut out the incidentals, and 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 organizational aims and agree these with the managers. Their traits include: self-starting, self-motivating, self-disciplined and well-organized. 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 as well as promises. If you have an unrealistic task and/or deadline, state the reasons why it’s not realistic. But remain sure of your ground, don’t be negative; stay constructive as to how the overall aim can happen in a way that you know you can deliver.
  • Stand up for yourself, but constructively — so avoid confrontation. Never threaten or go over their heads if you feel dissatisfied. Otherwise, you’ll end up in trouble.
  • If an X theory boss tells you how to do things in ways that do not feel comfortable or right for you, then don’t question the process. Instead, simply confirm the required end-result, and check if you can do things 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’.

The essence of managing upwards X theory managers? Focus and get agreement on the results as well as deadlines. If you consistently deliver, you’ll increasingly receive more leeway on how you go about the tasks, which amounts to more freedom. Many X theory managers end up forced into it by the short-term demands of the organization and their own superiors. An X theory manager usually categorizes someone with their own problems, so try not to give them any more.

Theory Z – William Ouchi

The Theory Z was developed by William Ouchi, a professor of management at UCLA, Los Angeles, and a board member of several large US organizations.

Theory Z is also often referred to as the ‘Japanese’ management style. 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 organization.

Theory Z also places more reliance on the attitude and responsibilities of the workers, whereas Mcgregor’s XY theory mainly focuses on management and motivation from the manager’s and organization’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 organizations 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.


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