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Theory X

Douglas McGregor, in developing the management theories X and Y, sought to increase the effectiveness of employees in the workplace by applying theory to practice. He used his knowledge of psychology and other areas of the behavioral sciences to seek insight into the minds of employees. He rationalized that by understanding the desires and motivations of the typical human being, he would be able to find a theory of how they feel about work and how they might respond to different forms of stimuli.

His findings have now become very important parts of the psychology of management, and are taught in virtually all leadership and management schools.  This is because his theories have been found to be relevant to leadership and applicable across the board to aid managers in their attempts to control or somehow manage the motivation of their employees (Barnett & Droege, 2005).

It was McGregor’s belief that certain personal theories held by all managers are responsible for the effectiveness of the employees that work as their subordinates.

He considered these theories to be based on managers’ basic feelings about the tendencies of people in general. They involved cause-and-effect relationships that would determine the way managers behaved with superiors and peers, but especially with subordinates.

Therefore, if a manager considered people to be generally lazy and self-seeking, he or she might be inclined to treat them with less respect and give them less freedom in their jobs. As a result, such a manager might feel the need to use such practices as close supervision and the formulation of strict rules in order to maintain control over what would be considered a volatile group of employees.

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The opposite view of people, on the other hand, might grant a vastly different treatment of employees (Barnett & Droege, 2005).

 According to McGregor in his theories X and Y, managers treat their subordinates according to their conception of the nature of human beings. Those who process change based on the Theory-X approach assume first of all that the responsibility lies with those who manage to organize the employees, materials, equipment etc. into a productive machine that fulfils the goals for which the organization was created (Barnett & Droege, 2005). As this regards human capital, the process involves motivation and control, and hinges on the manipulation of the employee.

Such managers working according to Theory X act under the assumption that humans are inherently lazy and have to be forced to work. They assume that work in itself offers a level of distastefulness to employees that they are unable to surmount unless otherwise motivated. They also assume that individuals tend to shun responsibility and require leadership at every step. Another significant assumption made by this type of manager is that individuals are resistant to change, as they value “security more than other considerations at work” (Barnett & Droege, 2005). Employees are also considered to have little to no ambition.

Furthermore, managers that fall in the category of theory X assume that employees themselves have very little ability to be creative in a work situation and have little to contribute by way of solving any organization problems that might arise. In fact, employees (in this view) are more likely to be or have created these organizational problems. Because workers will labor toward the fulfillment of organizational objectives only if they are expressly made to do so, managers make it their jobs to exert pressure in the form of control and through methods of coercion.

 Management must therefore offer rewards, punishments, and anything that will persuade employees to act in the company’s behalf. Either hard or soft management methods ensue from this conception of the individual. In the case of hard management, employees’ responses to change are secured through the use of punishments, while the soft approached uses methods of rewards and permissiveness. According to McGregor, both approaches to Theory X have some detrimental effects (Internet Center, 2005).

Theory Y

Like theory X, Theory Y holds managers responsible for organizing production elements toward the goal of economic profit-making. However, it accords to employees a greater level of autonomous motivation than does theory X. It actually sees these workers in a much more favorable light, as it elevates them from mere puppets (responsive only to the efforts of management) to the stature of partners in the organization.

Theory Y sees employees as having their own interest in the success of the organization. Because people are naturally inclined to work toward this, this theory sees them as needing only an initial motivational start in order to uncover this natural tendency. Management therefore directs its efforts toward creating an environment in which people may realize their own propensity for completing tasks that benefit the company.

Some related tenets of Theory Y are that employees expend energy toward work as naturally as they would toward playing and socializing. They do not need to be threatened with punishment in order to meet the organization’s goals because their goals are aligned with that of the organization and they desire to achieve. Unlike the employees of Theory X, these employees seek out areas in which they can express responsibility.

Likewise, employees as conceived by this theory are creative and imaginative, always on the verge of expressing some form of ingenuity. The behavioral theory behind this is that humans seek and are able to find self-actualization in their work. Employees can be self-motivated to do their jobs and accept changes to it given the right atmosphere and the proper encouragement from their managers (Barnett & Droege, 2005; Internet Center, 2005).

Managers who operate according to Theory Y are therefore likely to create an atmosphere at the workplace in which employees feel like members of a team. The employee’s voice and opinions are sought at meetings and other times of gathering, and their creativity is encouraged and rewarded. These managers offer mentorship to their employees and are interested in their growth as workers. They are also interested in their employees’ suggestions, and are likely to demonstrate their trust by delegating to them responsibility as well as authority.

Theory X vs. Theory Y

Theories X and Y are comparable in that management is held responsible for the manner in which the elements of the production process are made to interact in order to achieve the goal set out in the company’s mission. However, the similarities seem to end there as it regards mobilizing employees for changes in the structure and/or operations of the company. Theory Y presents a much more favorable view of the human individual than that of Theory X and, therefore, employees hired by managers who subscribe to this theory garner more trust from the managers than do their Theory-X counterparts.

While Theory X views employees as inherently lazy and resistant to change as it regards the work environment, Theory Y considers these same employees as having the ability to self-motivate and as welcoming of changes that will enhance or otherwise improve the job they do. Therefore, while managers might be tempted to force labor through incentives or punishment in a Theory-X environment, the managers in a Theory-Y environment would do quite the opposite.

Such a manager would nurture the employees and invest time into their development and into the creation of an environment that ministers to their comfort and their needs. Each manager type, in his/her way, creates changes in the work environment through either changing the entire system (Theory-X) or nurturing the employees within the system so that their own development will lead to the changes necessary for the company’s growth.

Another difference between the two theories (X and Y) is that while Theory X views people as having goals that conflict with those of the company, Theory Y sees employees as having personal goals that can be directed in such a way that they concur with those of the company. Therefore, self-actualization of the human employee materializes when the company is successful. Thus, while Theory X views the employee as being in opposition to the organization, Theory Y proposes the possibility of communion between them.

Impact of Theories X and Y

The impact of theory X in the managerial world has been said to be rather limited by many who study McGregor, and this has been thought to result from the extremity of the theory itself. However, it might just be that the theory’s impact has been to prove itself unrealistic and to nudge the management world into the opposite direction. Theory X has been described by John McClenahen, reviewer of Douglas McGregor’s book The Human Side of Enterprise as “about as commanding and controlling as you can get,” and it has proven itself difficult to adhere to in the real world. In fact, it has proven itself to be ineffective in producing the outcomes desired by managers who attempt the theory-X model of management (Barnett & Droege, 2005).

According to Droege and Barnett (2005), implementations of theory X led to lowered levels of output and distrust among employees and management. Rather than improve the employees loyalty and likelihood of adhering to firm standard, Theory X drove them toward unionism as a means of regaining a level of representation within firms. Because of the tendency of management toward autocracy in Theory X, employees have also tended to become more resistant under such a management system.

In fact, such a system has had the effect of de-motivating employees, who have seen themselves in such a situation as dehumanized and unappreciated. Furthermore, since little or no attempt is made to seek out the creativity of employee in the Theory X environment, employees have also tended to feel unfulfilled in the job. Such feelings have generally led to absenteeism or a high employee turnover within a firm.

On the side of the manager, Theory X has been criticized for being too fixed on hierarchy. Managers’ roles have been domineering and communication has generally run in a vertical direction. The results of such a management style have most often been the development of external control (if it had not already existed) in which the manager has existed in order to judge (rather than aid or encourage) the performance of the employees.

This theory has also resulted in emphasis being placed on the past (usually erroneous) actions of employees rather than the future possibilities for a firm (Barnett & Droege, 2005). As a result of this, McGregor’s impact in the management world as it regards Theory X currently amounts mainly to theory rather than to practice—as this management concept is generally discouraged during managerial training. Real employees have found it difficult to endure such a controlling environment for very long and managers who have tended toward this type of behavior have been inclined (or forced) to adjust them.

Theory Y has proven more fruitful in its impact on the managerial world. In workplaces where the offices of decision making have been decentralized one can find the trappings of Theory Y. This fact is realized in the current phenomenon in workplaces of multiple managers. In order to segment the often cemented and foreboding role of manager, firms have broken up departments into smaller groups and created managerial positions for a larger number of persons. The idea behind this is to allow managers a smaller group of subordinates so that he/she will have time and energy to spend in an association with each member that resembles more of a mentor-protégé than a master-slave relationship (Satria & Matsida, 2004).

The management of human capital has not always been a focal point of managers, and this fairly recent development can be connected to the concepts upheld in Theory Y. It is only recently that the concept of “people management” has developed, and this demonstrates a greater focus on the individual (Federation of European Employers, 2005). In the United States, Europe, and other developed countries, it has become widespread to find a position within an organization that is dedicated to the proper management of employees.

Before this, any contact of management with employees (beyond hiring, firing, or disciplining) was often limited to what happened in the room that housed the time clock or in managers’ offices. The employee welfare department was usually housed separately, but Theory Y might be considered as instrumental in uniting the interests of the manager with that of employee welfare. The title for this new position has become personnel manager or human resource manager. Human Resource Management therefore involves all the contact that management has with an employee, from the interview until the working relationship terminates.

This has a direct connection to Theory Y, as it is the role of this manager to be concerned with the welfare of employees. Human resource managers are also responsible for perceiving the talents of the members of their workforce, as this knowledge will most likely lead to better deployment. This is to the advantage of production as well as to the advantage of the employees, who achieve a sense of worth and fulfillment in utilizing their best skills. Human resource development has for this reason also become an important part of human resource management.

Although the advent of the human resource manager can be seen to be largely as a result of Theory Y’s influence, it might also be seen to have arisen as a (positive) reaction to the unionism, absenteeism, and high employee turnover that have been the result of a Theory-X method of management. In any case, human resource managers have become the rule in modern-day organizations—reflecting the importance of those tenets advocated and endorsed by Theory Y.

Theories X and Y in practice

Theories X and Y have impacted several areas of management, and this might be demonstrated in many real life industries, ranging from education and arts (publishing, broadcasting, fine art) to even technological industries. Despite their differences, much of the business of these industries revolve around the artistic creativity of certain persons, while other major parts of the industry deals with distributing these to the general public. The role of Theory X in an environment of creativity would appear to be limited as this theory appears to view employees as types rather than individuals.

Changes in these industry would seem to benefit from a Theory-X perspective perhaps in larger companies that are driven primarily by the profit motive. In such companies, the large numbers of employees may work more or less like an assembly line, each having very specific jobs. Creativity would be left only to a select few. In such an environment where job descriptions are firmly set and deviations from the normal job functions are not prevalent, job dissatisfaction might drive motivation levels down so that incentives and punishments may appear to be the only way to improve employee performance.

In smaller companies, or in companies driven to highly produce creative products (that is, driven not just by the profit motive), one is likely to find that employee input is more valued. Such a situation would warrant a Theory-Y approach as human creativity is often considered to manifest itself at a higher level (the self-actualization level) of the Maslow hierarchy.

The creativity of any firm is directly derived from human individuals, and the more creative the staff as a whole is allowed to become, the greater amount of creativity is generated toward the company. Managers in such an environment where creativity is valued might be more inclined to nurture the development of the human capital. When this is accomplished, the company’s goals of increasing its creative output would have been aligned with the individual employee’s self-actualization goal of maximizing his/her creativity.


Barnett, T. & S. B. Droege. (2005). “Theory X and Theory Y.” Encyclopedia of Management.             Accessed on November 27, 2006. Available:               Y.html

Federation of European Employers. “Human resource management in an expanded            European Union.” London: FedEE.

Internet Center for Management and Business Administration. (2005). “Theory X and   Theory Y.” Management. Accessed on November 27, 2006. Available:   

McClenahen, J. (2006). Review of The Human Side of Enterprise. Douglas McGregor. New           York: McGraw-Hill.

Satria, A. & Y. Matsida. (2004). “Decentralization Policy: An Opportunity for      Strengthening Fisheries Management System?” The Journal of Environment &          Development. 13(2), 179-196.


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Theories X And Y. (2017, Mar 17). Retrieved from

Theories X And Y
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