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Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X and Theory Y

What is Theory X and Y?

What do you think motivates your people to come to work each morning?
Do you believe that they get great satisfaction from their work and take pride in doing the best possible job? Or do you think that they see it as a burden, and simply work for the money?
These assumptions about your team members can have a significant influence on how you manage them.
In the 1960s, social psychologist Douglas McGregor developed two contrasting theories that explained how managers' beliefs about what motivates their people can affect their management style. He labelled these Theory X and Theory Y. These theories continue to be important even today.

Theory X

Douglas McGregor's theory assumes a negative image of man. McGregor states that worker is unwilling and lazy. He tries to avoid all work, is unproductive and has no ambition. Accordingly, as a consequence, he must be controlled, forced, directed and guided and even threatened with punishment. According to McGregor, this person WANTS to be held by the hand because they cannot manage to complete tasks on their own.

In the management context or in companies, the supervisor would have to specify each task in detail, instruct it and also subject it to strict controls. Theory X employees would not be able to work productively and efficiently on their own because they lack ambition and motivation. Douglas McGregor states that only through control, punishment and coercion is it possible to motivate Theory X people.

Working in teams is also a major challenge in Theory X. Here it is often the case that the performance of the individual disappears in the group as a whole. This means that some of the team members put in less work, but the performance is still counted as a group result. Some of you are probably familiar with situations like this, whether at school, at university or in the office. This behavior is also referred to as "social loafing".

Characteristics of person X:

• lazy
• not ambitious
• listless
• unwilling
• avoids any work
• Motivation only through control and/or punishment

Theory Y

Theory X and Y represent two completely contrary images of man. While the person of theory X is considered lazy, the person of theory Y is committed. The work can be called a "source of satisfaction". By nature, people of Theory Y are motivated from within and willing to perform. They strive for self-realization, like to take on responsibility, creative and independent, have a high degree of imagination and judgement.

In the work context, too, dealing with employees who correspond to this image of people or personality is very different from theory X. It is important here to create framework conditions that motivate people. This can be achieved through independent work, larger work areas, more responsibility, room for creativity, group and project work, more flexible structures and much more. The employees of Theory Y can identify with the goals and values of the organization and, according to McGregor, do not need any control or punishment as a conclusion.

In teams, people of Theory Y are extremely motivated. They are ambitious and always do their best in the group. They also like to take responsibility in a team, lead the group, are happy about successful results and also bring a lot of their own work to the table. If many members of Theory Y are represented in a team, it can be assumed that there is good cooperation, high motivation and a lot of group commitment. This increases both group and individual performance.

Characteristics of person Y:

• (intrinsically) motivated
• hard-working
• creative
• pursues self-actualization
• likes to take responsibility
• a lot of initiative
• versatile
• Solution oriented
• productive


Both of these theories arose around the 1950s. It is therefore an older theory, division of all of mankind into just 2 different and completely contrary images of man is not possible in reality. In view of our multifaceted and colorful society, such a classification should not be made. However, you can find more about this under “Criticism of Theory X and Y”.

Theory X and Y, and their leadership styles

Since Douglas McGregor related his theory primarily to the motivation of employees, certain leadership styles are also associated with the respective theory X or Y.

Theory X - The authoritarian leadership style

Theory X can best be assigned to the authoritarian leadership style. This is characterized by strict rules, clear instructions and hierarchies from superiors. The supervisors are responsible for this and make all decisions alone. The tasks are delegated to the individual employees and must be processed and carried out by them according to rules and regulations. After that, there are regular checks by the supervisors.

There is usually no space for creativity, initiative, own ideas or changes, nor is it desired. With a particularly pronounced authoritarian leadership style, the boss suppresses his or her employees and their independent thinking instead of promoting it. At first glance, this description may have negative sides, but there are also advantages, albeit mostly only for a short time:

Benefits of Theory X

• There are often (unfortunately only short-term) increases in performance.
• The individual areas of responsibility and tasks are clearly defined and assigned, which is why confusion rarely occurs and the entire work process can be monitored well.
• Decisions are usually made faster.

Disadvantages of Theory X

• A distance arises between employers and employees due to the position of power and the clear hierarchy.
• There's a lot of stress.
• Fluctuation is significantly higher, as is frequent sick leave.
• There is little or no motivation and initiative.
• The company's success is only attributed to the leaders, the employees get little recognition and credit for it.
• The failure of individual people can lead to chaos because certain areas of responsibility cannot be adequately covered.
• There is usually great dissatisfaction among the employees and their wishes and concerns are not heard.

Theory Y - the cooperative management style

In contrast to Theory X, the cooperative leadership style is used in Theory Y. This is characterized above all by the cooperation and interaction between supervisors and employees. Employees are involved in all important processes and decisions. Unlike the authoritarian leadership style, managers value the opinions and ideas of employees and actively involve them in the company.

The employees should and must take the initiative and assume responsibilities and tasks. The staff also work together more among themselves, which means that mistakes and wrong decisions can be reduced. Creativity is encouraged by the managers, as is open and honest communication. As with all theories or leadership styles, there are advantages and disadvantages here too.

Benefits of Theory Y

• The employees are motivated and enjoy working for the company.
• People often strive for self-actualization. To a certain extent, they can achieve this in a cooperative management style through his own initiative and greater responsibility.
• There is higher satisfaction and thus lower fluctuation and sick leave.
• The relationship between employer and employee is usually very good, interactive and familiar, since the employees are actively involved in solution processes.

Disadvantage of Theory Y

• Problems can arise when it comes to making decisions quickly, since employee opinions are also taken into account here.
• Finding a consensus can also be difficult due to the large number of different employees.
It is up to the managers to find a good balance between profitability and employee involvement. If a word of power is spoken here out of the blue, it can quickly happen that employees lose trust and accuse the boss of pseudo-cooperative behavior.

Criticism of Theory X and Y

• First of all, we have to go into the fact that, according to McGregor, there are exactly 2 images of people. Those of theory X and those of theory Y. Some are lazy and unwilling, others are highly motivated and committed. There is nothing in between, no gradations, no exceptions. In practice, this radical view is impossible to apply to a being as multifaceted as man. McGregor has received a lot of criticism for this over the years, which is why he later developed Theory Z.

• Employees are not all lazy, nor are they all extrinsically motivated. You will never find a workforce of the same people to whom a single leadership style can be appropriately applied. Theory X and Y are therefore mutually exclusive.
• Contrary to what is assumed, theory X and Y are not opposites or opponents. They can be easily combined in a balanced management style and thus ensure that a collaborative but economical working environment can develop. McGregor's assumption that these are complete opposites can therefore be ruled out.

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