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What is X-Y Theory of Management?

Douglas McGregor, an American social psychologist, proposed his famous X-Y theory in his 1960 book 'The Human Side Of Enterprise'. Theory X and Theory Y are still referred to commonly in the field of management and motivation, and whilst more recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model, Mcgregor's X-Y Theory remains a valid basic principle from which to develop positive management style and techniques. McGregor's XY Theory remains central to organisational development, and to improving organisational culture.

McGregor's X-Y theory is a salutary and simple reminder of the natural rules for managing people, which under the pressure of day-to-day business are all too easily forgotten.

His ideas suggest that there are two fundamental approaches to managing people:

  • Many managers tend toward Theory X and generally get poor results. 
  • Enlightened managers use Theory Y, which produces better performance and results, and allows people to grow and develop.

McGregor's ideas significantly relate to the modern understanding of the Psychological Contract, which provides many ways to appreciate the unhelpful nature of X-Theory leadership and the useful constructive beneficial nature of Y-Theory leadership.

Theory X - 'Authoritarian Management' Style

Assumptions made under this theory:

  1. The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he/she can.
  2. Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.
  3. The average person prefers to be directed; avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.

What are the Characteristics of an X-Theory Manager?

Perhaps the most noticeable aspects of McGregor's XY Theory - and the easiest to illustrate - are found in the behaviours of autocratic managers and organisations which use autocratic management styles.

Typically characteristics of an X-Theory manager are most or all of these:

  • Results-driven and deadline-driven, to the exclusion of everything else
  • Intolerant
  • Issues deadlines and ultimatums
  • Distant and detached
  • Aloof and arrogant
  • Elitist
  • Short temper
  • Shouts
  • Issues instructions, directions, edicts
  • Issues threats to make people follow instructions
  • Demands, never ask
  • Does not participate
  • Does not team-build
  • Unconcerned about staff welfare, or morale
  • Proud, sometimes to the point of self-destruction
  • One-way communicator
  • Poor listener
  • Fundamentally insecure and possibly neurotic
  • Anti-social
  • Vengeful and recriminatory
  • Does not thank or praise
  • Withholds rewards, and suppresses pay and remunerations levels
  • Scrutinises expenditure to the point of false economy
  • Seeks culprits for failures or shortfalls
  • Seeks to apportion blame instead of focusing on learning from the experience and preventing recurrence
  • Does not invite or welcome suggestions
  • Takes criticism badly and is likely to retaliate if from below or peer group
  • Poor at proper delegating - but believes they delegate well
  • Thinks giving orders is delegating
  • Holds on to responsibility but shifts accountability to subordinates
  • Relatively unconcerned with investing in anything to gain future improvements
  • Unhappy

How to Manage an X-Theory Boss

Working for an X-theory boss isn't easy - some extreme X-Theory managers make extremely unpleasant managers, but there are ways of managing these people upwards. Avoiding confrontation (unless you are genuinely being bullied, which is a different matter) and delivering results are key tactics.

  1. Theory X managers (or indeed Theory Y managers displaying Theory X behaviour) are primarily results-oriented, so orientate your discussions and dealings with them around results - i.e what you can deliver and when.
  2. Theory X managers are facts and figures oriented - so cut out the incidentals, and be able to measure and substantiate anything you say and do for them, especially reporting on results and activities.
  3. Theory X managers generally don't understand or have an interest in human issues, so don't try to appeal to their sense of humanity or morality. Set your objectives to meet their organisational aims and agree on these with the managers; be seen to X-Theory manager sees you are managing yourself and producing results, the less they'll feel the need to do it for you.
  4. Always deliver your commitments and promises. If you are given an unrealistic task and/or deadline state the reasons why it's not realistic, but be very sure of your ground, don't be negative; be constructive as to how the overall aim can be achieved in a way that you know you can deliver.
  5. Stand up for yourself, but constructively - avoid confrontation. Never threaten or go over their heads if you are dissatisfied or you'll be in big trouble afterwards and life will be a lot more difficult.
  6. If an X Theory boss tells you how to do things in ways that are not comfortable or right for you, then don't question the process, simply confirm the end result that is required, and check that it's okay to 'streamline the process' or 'get things done more efficiently' if the chance arises - they'll normally agree to this, which effectively gives you control over the 'how', provided you deliver the 'what' and 'when'.

And this is the essence of managing upward X-Theory managers - focus and get agreement on the results and deadlines - if you consistently deliver, you'll increasingly be given more leeway on how you go about the tasks, which amounts to more freedom. 

Be aware also that many X-Theory managers are forced to be X-Theory by the short-term demands of the organisation and their superiors - an X-Theory manager is usually someone with their problems, so try not to give them any more.

Theory Y - 'Participative Management' Style

Assumptions made under this theory:

  • Effort in work is as natural as work and play.
  • People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems is widely (not narrowly) distributed among the population.
  • In industry, the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilised.

Theory Z - William Ouchi

Please note that Theory Z is not a Mcgregor idea and as such is not Mcgregor's extension of his XY theory.

Theory Z was developed by William Ouchi, in his book 1981 'Theory Z: How American Business can meet the Japanese Challenge '. William Ouchi is a professor of management at UCLA, Los Angeles, and a board member of several large US organisations.

What is Z-Theory of Management?

Theory Z is often referred to as the 'Japanese' management style, which is essentially what it is. Interestingly, Ouchi chose to name his model 'Theory Z', which apart from anything else tends to give the impression that it's a Mcgregor idea. 

  • Theory Z essentially advocates a combination of all that's best about Theory Y and modern Japanese management, which places a large amount of freedom and trust with workers, and assumes that workers have a strong loyalty and interest in team-working and the organisation.
  • Theory Z also places more reliance on the attitude and responsibilities of the workers, whereas Mcgregor's XY Theory is mainly focused on management and motivation from the manager's and the organisation's perspective.

Tools for Teaching, Understanding and Evaluating XY Theory Factors

The XY Theory diagram and measurement tool below (pdf and doc versions) are adaptations of McGregor's ideas for modern organisations, management and work.  

Please note, that they were not created by McGregor. BusinessBalls (Alan Chapman) developed them to help the understanding and application of McGregor's XY Theory concept. The test is a simple reflective tool, not a scientifically validated instrument; it's a learning aid and broad indicator. Please use it as such.

XY Diagram

See also the article about Assertive Techniques and Self Confidence.