Theory X or Theory Y?

One of the common areas we work on with clients is employee motivation and engagement.  Getting the best out of your staff, all of them, can make the difference between a good company and a great one.  So what’s the secret?  How can you motivate and engage your staff?

There are many motivational theories and models, but one of my favourites was developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management way back in 1957, and then further developed in the 1960s.  The model describes opposing sets of general assumptions of how employees are motivated and subsequent management styles.  Theory X stresses the importance of strict supervision, external rewards, and penalties, while in contrast, Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision.

Mcgregor suggested that employees are split into these two types.


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Theory X basically hate work.  They turn up (occasionally on time), they do the minimum required and leave exactly on time.  They rarely volunteer to go the extra mile, in fact quite the opposite.  They are difficult to get moving at all.  They require constant supervision and pushing to get them to do anything.


Theory Y love work.  They jump out of bed every morning and think “Great – another day in the office! I can’t wait.”  To them work is very much like play.  They are the first to volunteer for that extra project or task, they’re always full of energy and enthusiasm.  Nothing gets them down.  You can give them something to do and just let them get on with it.


Maybe you know a few Theory X types, or maybe a few Theory Y types.  If you think back over your career there might be a few people who were in these categories.  Mcgregor further suggested that 10% of employees are Theory X and that 10% are Theory Y – and that you’ll struggle to change them.


So what about the rest of us?

The other 80% are in the middle, drifting between Theory X and Y as we move through our careers.  Take a moment to think about your own career.  Like most of us, there have probably been some highs and lows.  At some points in your career you might have been in a job you loved, were actually good at, you were working with great people and had a great boss.  At that point it’s likely you were drifting towards Theory Y.


However, at other times you might have been in a job you hated, working long hours with a bunch of colleagues you didn’t like and boss that treated you badly.  At that point it’s likely you were drifting towards Theory X.


If you think about your own employees motivation and engagement in this context, it’s clear that one of the key factors that pull you towards either Theory X or Y is your manager or team leader.  If you’re working for a manager who treats you fairly and with respect, who values and recognizes your contribution, who puts your interests above theirs, who trusts you to deliver and gives you space to perform at your best – you will tend to perform well and enjoy your work.  In other words move towards Theory Y.  The opposite holds true as well.


So what does that mean for you as a leader or manager?


First of all recognize the impact you have as a leader.  Don’t underestimate your impact.  You set the tone, the environment, the culture and style for your team.  You can create an environment that moves staff towards Theory Y, or you can create one that moves them to Theory X.  Think about how you do that.  Think about times in your own career where you felt more Theory Y.  What was it that made you feel that way?


Of course not all employees are the same.  If you have a few Theory X staff in there, you face some hard decisions on whether to keep them or not.  If you have some Theory Y types, then you are truly blessed.  Give them something to do and watch them fly.  The rest of us just need the right leadership to nudge us in the right direction!


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