Theory X? Why?


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I speak with managers who describe their frustrations at dealing with people they call “stupid”. They get angry at people who are clumsy and fail to learn from mistakes, who don’t share their passion for the work, who are slow and indifferent, who try to get away with the barest minimum of effort, who exhibit little curiosity or desire to learn. I’m no apologist for willful sabotage, maliciousness or indolence at work, but there is another way of looking at these behaviours and attributes. When I similarly find myself getting impatient with people who don’t live up to my standards of work, I have to remind myself that perhaps they are not deliberately performing poorly. If we hold on to the idea that workplaces are machines and the people within them just parts of the machine, then I suppose it makes sense to label “inefficient” ones as stupid. Also, if we still hold on to the idea that we can use words like “efficient” to describe humans at work, we will continue to get angry at their individual performance. My suggestion is not to get angry at “stupid” people, but to think bigger. Think bigger by eliminating blindness to the system; see how the system will affect people’s performance at work. Think bigger, also, by viewing people you lead as humans, not resources.

People such as Maslow and Glasser posited that we are driven by some basic needs. Without getting into a critique of the details of Maslow’s or Glasser’s work, the essence is similar. We behave in ways that attempt to meet our needs for:

  • survival (food, shelter, clothing)
  • belonging (love, affection, relationships)
  • significance (power, self-esteem, competence)
  • personal development (fun, learning and fulfillment)
  • freedom (autonomy, independence, self-mastery)

It beggars belief that, if a manager is willing to acknowledge that they, themselves, are driven by these needs, they would hold an entirely different view of those they purport to manage. The work of Harvard Professor Douglas McGregor has something to add here. His XY Theory describes what motivates humans at work. In “The Human Side of Enterprise”, he proposed that a manager will view workers in one of two ways: that they are inherently averse to work and that rigid systems of control are required in order to get them to do what you want them to do (Theory X) or that they are naturally ambitious and, given the right conditions, they will be self-motivated and contribute willingly to the success and effectiveness of their workplaces (Theory Y). Whether a manager ascribes to Theory X or Theory Y will influence their style of management; authoritarian and controlling or enabling and facilitative. McGregor set out Theory XY over 50 years ago, however some managers are still possessed with the idea that people are inherently lazy and are solely motivated by threats, intimidation and reward schemes. Time to update. Even in the realm of dog training, many of us long ago disposed of Barbara Woodhouse’s old ‘choke chain’ as inhumane and unnecessary. As Deming observed, you can beat a horse to make it go faster, but only for a short while. Threats and micro-managing might work on some level, but eventually the business will hit the laws of physics and diseconomies of scale will kick in. Time to dispose of the view that managing is simply about getting people to do what you want them to do.

I find Theory X and Theory Y of great relevance to the challenges of the 21st century. Continuing to see the world through Theory X leads to a tayloristic style of management, which has become increasingly redundant. It is a theory which says that humans are only as creative as they need to be to find a work-avoidance scheme. It says that a prime motivator is money or fear of loss of money. To my thinking, it breeds cultures of cynicism, selfishness and short-termism. If we now believe that slavery is an abomination, why would we continue to believe that paid-for slavery is acceptable? Furthermore, why would any leader who wants their business to succeed in the modern world want to believe the worst about people?

Even Frederick Taylor knew that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, but if we view motivation according to Theory X, we will naturally translate some ‘well-being-maximising’ behaviours as “malingering”, “loafing” or “getting through the day”. If the system is screwy, why blame people for playing by its rules? If you emphasise measurements on an individual’s performance, as opposed to their wider contribution to something bigger, why be surprised when people just do the “bare minimum”? If you fail to steward a culture which values diversity, creativity and contribution to the whole, why scorn people for being disengaged from the purpose of the business?

Theory Y holds that people look for meaning in their lives and in their work. It maintains that under the right conditions, people will find joy in their work. Under the right conditions, people will also use their work as a vehicle to express their creativity and realise their potential. I will borrow this quote (thanks to Louise Altman) from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environments.” Makes good sense to me. He seems to know what goes on in most work environments and is interested in updating what goes on at work.

I note how Theory Y says that people will be autonomous and responsible given the right conditions. Here is where a leader’s responsibility lies: in stewarding the right conditions. How can a leader contribute to putting the right conditions in place? One of these managers I regularly talk with (I’ll call him Manager Y) has cottoned on to the idea that humans and human systems are complex beings that cannot be analysed or managed from an outdated, mechanistic paradigm. He has become more interested in creating the right conditions so that frustration decreases while effectiveness increases. He has been updating his view of himself and his job, so he is more orientated to leading people than managing ‘stuff‘. He has acknowledged that he is succeeding in creating the right conditions because he has changed who he is and how he is. He has courageously decided to look at himself and how his role responses to people used to create the ‘wrong conditions’ for people to work effectively. In this, he has undertaken to develop new roles for himself.

One of the roles he has refined is that of Boundary-Setter. Like most of us, he has always been aware that systems and processes are necessary at work, but his attitude towards them was a little skewed. To his mind, systems and processes equated to an authoritarian style of management. He was uncomfortable with the idea that he might be one of those types of managers, so he compensated by managing people on an ad hoc basis. He has realised, however, that systems and processes are not a bad thing. The modern manager enacts their Boundary-Setter role and applies systems and processes with a lighter touch than in the old days. Effective systems and processes are not arbitrary nor exhaustive. Done effectively, they are the boundaries within which people can operate comfortably and safely. Useful systems and processes will be robust, simply communicated, easily understood and not so restrictive that they inhibit autonomy or individual creativity. Manager Y was labouring under an idea that systems and processes might be too confining, however, in an attempt to become less of a hard-nosed, taylorian manager, threw the baby out with the bath water, dispensed with a consistent set of guidelines and ended up being seen as a push-over. Now, he is growing consistency balanced with personal responsibility. Just like Goldilocks’ porridge, businesses need systems and processes that are “just right”.

Another role Manager Y has been developing is Appreciator-of-People. This role thinks, feels and behaves in ways which promote self-esteem and confidence in others. He knows for a fact that people know exactly how to do their jobs. He knows for a fact that they are capable (for he has seen it in the past with his own eyes, so neither he nor they can pretend they don’t know what they’re doing). His starting point has now shifted from “they’re lazy and they need me to stay on their backs” to “they know what they’re doing, how can I get out of their way?” This significant shift in his attitude means that he now demonstrates trust and respect.

In the role of Trusting Auxiliary, Manager Y is honing his capabilities around supporting and coaching. He is letting people have more space to do their jobs and after a short, initial period of adjustment, people are filling this space with responsibility-taking and team-based problem-solving. He continues to have regular catch-ups with his team, but has changed the tone of those. No longer is he one of the Spanish Inquisition endlessly asking why something didn’t get done. Instead, he asks what gets in the way of people working well or how he can assist. This is no mere lip-service exercise. Herein is how he has changed who he is because he has adopted a genuine curiosity and naiveté to his questioning. People know if you are questioning them to catch them out or if you are questioning them to find the answer to a question. People know if you ask them a question which you have already answered in your head. He also starts with what they are doing well, rather than what they’re not doing well enough. This means that people are becoming less fearful about discussing mistakes because his approach is orientated to learning, not punishment.

Just as I will keep banging on about coaching people from a strengths-based mindset, I will keep banging on about how important it is for leaders to re-cast themselves as Systems Stewards. In this role, Manager Y has found his job less burdensome because he is concerning himself less with micro-managing and making sure things “get done” than he is with creating boundaries of effective work behaviour, doing that big picture “vision stuff” (daydreaming, looking into the future, wish-listing, strategising, networking and influencing) and making sure that communication channels are open and transparent.

Let’s please stop seeing people as inherently lazy, irresponsible and inefficient and, instead, take Tony Hsieh’s or Manager Y’s approach and see them as complex humans with a natural drive to learn, self-actualise and thrive. If we must continue using things like Key Performance Indicators, let’s keep them in perspective. They are just that: merely an indicator and a limited one at best. It indicates, it points to: it doesn’t give the full picture of what is going on. It indicates that something you are narrowly measuring is either doing OK or it is not. An indicator such as this does not, however, indicate whether a person’s performance is related to a badly-led culture. It does not indicate whether someone is fully supported and resourced to do their job effectively. It does not indicate whether someone’s intrinsic human needs are being realised. Time for an update.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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