Theory X and Theory Y

Use this framework to motivate employees

In the 1950s Douglas McGregor developed a theory of management styles that describe how employees are motivated. In 1960 he published his theory is in a book entitled The Human Side of Enterprise. It proposes the idea that good managers work out how to get the best from their employees by choosing either a tightly controlled management style (Theory X) or a much looser one (Theory Y).

Douglas McGregor argued that many managers assume workers have little ambition, are lazy, and seek to avoid responsibility. As a result, managers use the carrot and stick approach rewarding positive outcomes and punishing failures. This he called Theory X. He wasn't necessarily against the Theory X management style, he simply thought it was best used in certain types of work. For example, if a workplace has an assembly line and employees do a specific job on the line, then Theory X would allow the company to mass produce goods in greater quantity and with a higher quality of work.


However, there is another theory of management and that is employees can be motivated by wanting to do a good job, better themselves, take responsibility for the work, and do so without close supervision. This he termed Theory Y management. The employee is seen on a more personal level and having a more democratic interrelationship with their manager. Theory Y results in a more positive working environment.


McGregor saw theory X and theory Y as potentially appropriate in any company. The leadership style should be one that fits the conditions. In times gone by we can imagine that Theory X was seen as the most appropriate management style. It has echoes of command and control which are typical within hierarchical organisations. Today's educated workforce may find this suffocating and it may not be the best way of getting the best out of people. Theory Y seems more appropriate for today's businesses.

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