McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

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Author: Salvatore Corradi – FM Chairman

In 1960 at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the american psychologist Douglas McGregor defined two contrasting assumptions about the nature of humans in the workplace. These are two motivational theories of human resources that explain how employees develop their productivity on a daily basis. The two models proposed by McGregor are diametrically opposed and take the name of Theory X and Theory Y. In addition to framing the approach of the collaborators of a company, each of these theories embodies a different prototype of leadership and a different predisposition of employees within a work environment. Both models have to do with the perception that managers have of their subordinates.

Theory X corresponds to an authoritarian management style and is based on the belief that individuals do not do any work spontaneously and with innate enthusiasm. To be stimulated and encouraged they need direct pressure that must be exerted by the leader, who relates to them in a severe and almost despotic manner. This approach generates a work environment based on control and rigidity, where targeted disciplinary actions are often used, considered fundamental to nourish and ensure the motivation of collaborators. In the modern business environment, this theory is evidently counterproductive and inappropriate, since it tends to blame only and exclusively the human capital that is perceived as unambitious, negligent, and  focused on itself.

Even from the point of view of the conduct of the manager or manager, criticisms do not struggle to emerge: managers who base their leadership on Theory X rely on the threat and coercion to obtain the respect of their employees, inevitably generating a punitive atmosphere of distrust. These autocratic managers make all decisions on their own and inform their employees not for the need for comparison but only to communicate the instructions they will follow without the possibility of counter. In difficult situations, those who make use of this model will tend to blame the individual, without ever questioning what could be the real causes of a bad business performance, such as erroneous assessments of the leader, pretentious and unconscious approaches, questionable internal policies, lack of proper training and much more.

What emerges from the elaboration of the second theory is a much more participatory and inclusive management style. Theory Y in fact assumes that individuals are eager to participate in the decision-making process of the reality in which they operate and that they can be ambitious and self-motivated without necessarily receiving intimidating warnings. Employees who fall into this category feel at ease in a work environment that takes into account their inventivness, proactivity and that recognizes their value.

The leadership model of Theory Y is supportive, engaging and encouraging. Decision-making power is exercised by sharing decisions with the entire group, democratically and without impositions. At the helm of the company there are therefore motivating personalities who act together to achieve the best performance. Consequently the development of human resources becomes a fundamental aspect for any organization, reducing hierarchical differences to the essential.

That McGregor’s Theory Y is the most effective is a clear reality that borders on the obvious. However, even the very fact that the social psychologist has outlined these two approaches based on proven evidence is anything but comforting. Is it true that this is the formulation of a thought that dates back to the 1960s, but can we really be sure that they are two theories that are now “outdated” and that only the second is to be considered trustworthy?