Upwards Management: An X Theory Boss

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. These managers - who fall into the category "Theory X" - can be hard to deal with as an employee. Here we discuss a few tips and techniques used to handle an autocratic manager.

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Characteristics of the X Theory Manager [edit]


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

What are the characteristics of a Theory X manager? Typically some, 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 asks
  • 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 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


Managing Upwards

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 the key tactics.

  • Theory X managers (or indeed theory Y managers displaying theory X behaviour) are primarily results oriented - so orientate your own discussions and dealings with them around results - ie what you can deliver and when.
  • Theory X managers are facts and figures oriented - so cut out the incidentals, be able to measure and substantiate anything you say and do for them, especially reporting on results and activities.
  • Theory X managers generally don't understand or have an interest in the human issues, so don't try to appeal to their sense of humanity or morality. Set your own objectives to meet their organisational aims and agree these with the managers; be seen to be self-starting, self-motivating, self-disciplined and well-organised - the more the X theory manager sees you are managing yourself and producing results, the less they'll feel the need to do it for you.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 really the essence of managing upwards 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 own superiors - an X theory manager is usually someone with their own problems, so try not to give them any more.