Theory X and Theory Y, Douglas McGregor

Douglas McGregor spent the end of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s working on his motivation theory. Curiously titled Theory X Theory Y, his theory outlines two opposing views on human behavior in the workplace. Each of the viewpoints addresses a different way of meeting each individual’s motivational needs. McGregor believed that a manager’s assumptions about their employees determined their leadership style in the workplace.

Douglas McGregor Photo
Douglas Murray McGregor (September 1906 – 1 October 1964)

The first part of McGregor’s theory is Theory X. Managers have many assumptions about their employees in Theory X:

  • Workers dislike their jobs and they are inherently lazy.
  • Workers have little motivation and prefer direction from their superiors.
  • Workers need consistent rewards and punishments to ensure their task is completed.
  • Workers do not have a desire to grow or achieve personal or professional goals.
a person refusing to work (“X”) and a person cheering the opportunity to work (“Y”)

Many of these assumptions are based on basic physical needs. Businesses who utilize a Theory X approach often have a multiple levels of management with a low rate of delegation. Workers are often micromanaged and have very little autonomy in the organization. There is often a central authority base and managers follow an authoritative leadership style.

The next part of McGregor’s theory is Theory Y. Managers also have assumptions about their employees in Theory Y:

  • Workers are willing to accept challenges and are proud of the work that they do.
  • Workers do not need to be micromanaged; they are self-directed.
  • Workers are eager to participate in decision-making.
  • Workers are happy to contribute and feel internally satisfied.

These assumptions lead to a better managerial approach and this greater satisfaction in the workplace. McGregor encouraged organizations to adopt more of a Theory Y leadership style. It is much more decentralized and requires more participation from the managers, but assumes that workers would also be committed to the long-term goals of the company. He believed that by following Theory Y, supervisors could motivate their workers to achieve their highest potential.

There are many similarities between Theory X Theory Y and Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory uses a pyramid to describe the different types of needs that need to be met. Each level, or type of human need, can only be achieved if all of the levels below are satisfied, starting with basic needs at the bottom. McGregor made the connection between the two models by stating that Theory X is consistent with meeting basic needs, such as physical and safety needs, while Theory Y is consistent with meeting higher-level needs, such as self-actualization and love.

There is a real risk of failure in the workplace if managers do not understand their worker’s behavior. Many workplaces originally utilized Theory X, which believes that employees are lazy and unproductive. This led them to use rewards and punishment as their primary means to motivate employees. In a strict environment with little autonomy, workers were indeed unhappy and lacking ambition. McGregor suggested that organizations would experience greater success if they focused on satisfying interpersonal needs, which led to the development of Theory Y.

While McGregor’s theory was developed to improve motivation in the workplace, it has been recently used in the school system. Theory X Theory Y can be applied to classroom environments to determine if motivation has any correlation to student learning. It has been discovered that the intrinsic feedback given in the classroom setting has the greatest effect on motivation and learning.

Educators who believe in Theory X would agree with the following statements:

  • The instructor is responsible for actively sharing their knowledge with the students.
  • Students are not motivated to learn new information.
  • Students prefer to have the instructor direct their learning and not take on that responsibility themselves.
  • The instructor must ensure a controlled learning environment to prevent cheating and necessitate student learning; the students prefer to have the material summarized for them.
  • Students find learning inherently challenging and are only expected to have limited success in the course.

Educators who believe in Theory Y would have different assumptions:

  • Students are naturally predisposed to learn.
  • Responsibility for their own learning will be as natural to the students as other responsibilities.
  • Students experience self-satisfaction when they learn and this is enough to motivate them to meet their learning goals.
  • It is not necessary to threaten students with lower grades; they are not naturally lazy.
  • Traditional classrooms do not enable the potential of almost all students.
  • Students have large amounts of creative thinking and innovation that is applied throughout their learning journey.

While it may seem like McGregor’s Theories of X and Y are outdated, they can actually still be applied in many business settings today. McGregor’s Theories allow managers to better understand their employees. This enables them to modify their leadership style accordingly and create systems that motivate their workers.

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