Evaluating Earlier Models >>Theory X - Theory Y  

Theory X - Theory Y

Douglas Mc Gregor: Theory X and the completely different Theory Y

When Douglas Mc Gregor presented his ideas and research on the practice of management beginning sixties of the last century, he will problably not have known the immense importance of his ideas for the world of management in years to come.
Mc Gregor did not publish much. He perhaps belongs to the rare category of wise man about whom one says: "he/she knows much, but says little."
His most know publications are: The Human Side of Enterprise and The Professional Manager.

We here under point to three important messages Mc Gregor has for the world of managers and managementtraining.

1. The origin of managementbehavior springs from a managers norms, values, views on what thrives workers. Knowing these ads to the predictability of manager behavior.

In order to become an effective manager one must be able to reflect on the effectivity of ones own behavior, norms and values.
Managementbehavior is not a neutral reaction coming out of a black box - like that of an automaton - to situations or to workers. Every manager has a set of norms and values that regulate his/hers behavior. An engineer could say: a manager is a system, of wich the systemsoutput is regulated by a regulator with (personal) norms. These norms arrive from different locations, such as: parents, education, peergroups, organisational culture, exemples of good and bad management. Once a manager starts behaving his norms define goals and his behavior is directed towards reaching these goals. Like any other system the manager can not arrive at goals other then those that comply with his norms. When these goals are not effective, it will be necessary to change the regulating norms. With new norms come other goals.

As these norms are deeply embedded in the person of the manager is it is therefore necessary that managers learn to reflect on the norms that - sometimes - unconsciuosly regulate their management (goals and behavior).

2. Theory X: why a set of managementnorms works selffullfilling and motivation by "carrot and stick" does not create commitment.

Mc Gregor saw many managers use a specific set of values/norms, assumptions about worker behavior. This set comes down to the following:
- (all) workers are of nature lazy, do not want to work
- to get work done workers have to be placed under control and punished if necessary (carrot or stick)
- in general workers do not thrive for responsablility, but duck for responsability
- workers are not committed to their work
- workers do not want change

Managers with this set of norms behave predictably: they actively and unilaterally steer and control the work of their workers, give instructions, motivate or else punish in order to get the work done, and dare not trust workers.

These theory X-managers behave predictable. They see reality from a perception infested by the above norms. So a topmanager for example seeing a litle bit too often workers of a certain department take a coffeebreak, will argue: I see my norm is right, workers are lazy. So we must control them better. Lets restrict coffeebreaks for all workers of the organisation. Or another example: one faulty  handling of a budget of a worker badly supervised by the direct chef of the worker will lead to new rules for all budgethandling operations in the entire organisation in order to prevent these faults recurring.

Theory X also regulates through manager behavior organisational operations and strategies. Management will operate within the boundaries of output dictated by their norms in action. Organisational renewal takes the form of "more of the same", or of "old wine in new barrels". Fundamental change is not possible: ideas contrary to those of management are all too often seen as insubordinative. The same earflaps of managers that prohibit them to look beyond the surface prohibit them to be open to new ideas. Fundamental change can therefore not arrive from within, but must come from new blood.

The X-set of norms becomes selffullfilling. Assuming lazy, irresponsable, uncommitted workers is acted upon by management control. Workers duck the (ever growing) control and regulations in attempt to regain a live worthy degree of personal freedom: they do not want to be overly controlled and used as mere instruments of managers. Then managers seeing this behavior of their ducking workers say: I see, my norm is right. I must invest in even better control in order to realise my organisational goals. The predictable consequence is: managers and workers are captured in a vicious circle where the behavior and the responses to behavior of both manager and worker reinforce the norms that regulate their respective behavioral sets and norms and visions behind them. Managers see workers more and more as lazy. Workers see managers more and more as controllers/restrictors. Managers norms create through this series of selfinduced reinforcements an image of workers that fit managernorms. Workers norms create a managers image that fits their self created images. Managers and workers so become the prisoners of these over and over mutually reinforced images. workers see managers as controllers, managers see workers as lazy, never committed workers. The operating of both towards each other becomes in time becomes more and more "closed". And so opening up these images will in time become more and more difficult.

In the rare case it is possible to change the set of norms of a manager his/hers forthcoming behavior wil change, as will his organisational strategies. Mc Gregor uses the concept of Theory Y as an example to demonstrate this. Managers who operate towards workers from the principle of thrust create workers that are trustworthy, wil accept work and responsability. Workers - in general ! - will then prove they like to work, like to be committed to an common cause, take responsability as far as their capabilities give them a possibility. And workers in reverse start percieving their managers as preople that give them chances to grow, take responsability.
There will however always be exeptions to this general rule. Some workers are lazy and will need an individual approach, sometimes more control in order to get work done in exchange for salary. Theory Y is not against control when necessary, but  is against control as a general principle of managing workerbehavior.

3. An organisational setting is a result of a history of events created by management (and workers) causing the setting. So to understand a complex organisational setting it is necessary to manage beyond symptoms and search for deeper causes that are reflected by consequences.

Lets take the manager who sees his workers are reacting vigourously against change. A manager can perceive these facts as all reality there is and as proof of his norms that workers have an innate resistance to change. The manager can upon this assumption rightly conclude there is only one way to arrive at any change: using power to break this resistance. This a manager would do using norms according X.
But the manager can also see these facts as direct consequences of earlier managementbehavior that learned workers not to invest energy and ideas in organisational change. Then the facts (resistance) are to be reframed as symptoms of deeper causes. Workers once perhaps were asked to participate in change and came with ideas. They then invested their commitment, came with ideas, developed discussable contra-solutions that could solve the projected problems and hoped their energy could have influence. But they where neglected by a manager who wanted only to pursue his own set goals and did not seriously discussed findings of workers. These workers will when again challenged to participate in change not invest energy. For them this would be a predictable lost case. They have learned from earlier experience. They presume that all managers are the same, as the managers think all workers are the same (see above). And so they abstain from commitment in order to protect themselves from again getting their commitment being "remunerated" by feelings of being hurt, angry, deeply dissatisfied, misused.

An effective manager should look behind symptoms and react to deeper causes. A manager in doing so attacks the roots that inhibit real and durable change and opens room for commitment and more pleasure in work. In our case a manager will start discussing the (often traumatic) experiences of workers with earlier managers and will help them reposition their experiences as regards to what his own intentions and behavioral posibilities.

The searching behind symptoms for real causes and seeing symptoms as possible consequences of earlier happenings and experiences is of extreme importance in the education of managers. And it is arguably the best way to arrive at effective goals in specific management situations. And also: many management trainees do have to learn how complex their organisational management reality works. Only through analysing symptoms, and chaines of consequences and causes - more or less a Bhudist way - one reaches higher levels of understanding  dynamic processes and higher influencing effectivity. As Carl Jung pointed in 1934 part to the same: "the only thing that moves nature is causal necessity and that goes for human nature too". He ads that a person who wants to grow from within has the best motor in his or hers hands to progress.