In theory: Theory X and Theory Y

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

As management theories go, Theories X and Y aren't exactly catchily named, although the thinking behind them is, for a change, quite interesting. If last week's column was all about scientific management and treating employees like machines, this week's is all about recognising that workers are human beings after all.

Theory X and Theory Y were coined by Douglas McGregor, an academic, in his pioneering 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise. He categorised managers and employees into two types of people - those who subscribed to Theory X and those who to subscribed to Theory Y. X-ers (and I'm sure you will know many of these) subscribe to a traditional view of work - they hate it and will do anything to get out of it. Lazy slackers, they avoid responsibility and must be cajoled into doing their tasks by managers whose main purpose in life is to get them to do a day's work by threatening them with punishment and watching over them like hawks. Needless to say, this style of management is hardly a laugh a minute.

Theory Y-ers, meanwhile, view work as a source of personal satisfaction that can be used to the benefit of the organisation for which they work. A Theory Y manager will enable people to fulfil their potential by working with them in a productive relationship. Theirs is a more human and mutually beneficial approach to work.

But McGregor was not so naive as to believe that an organisation or a person is either an X or a Y. Indeed, before his premature death, he had started to formulate a Theory Z, which could be explained as X+Y=Z. Could management theory get any more algebraic?

To those charity managers who may have failed their maths exams, fret not. Voluntary sector people are nice people who do their work for the high degree of personal satisfaction they derive from it (well, it's hardly going to be the money). Their leanings will be towards Y - not X. Your work as a manager, therefore, is mostly done. So just sit back, relax and enjoy.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.


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