McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y of Motivation

McGregor’s Theory of Motivation

As a manager of the team, what do you think are the factors behind your employees’ motivation to come to work every morning?

Do you believe that their work motivates them? That they get satisfaction from their work and strive to give their best? Or do you think that they come in for the money and that they see work as a burden?

Why these questions? Because the assumptions you make about your employees greatly influences the way you manage them.

Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist famous in the 1960s developed two contrasting theories that explained how the manager’s beliefs and behavior about what motivates the employees affected the management style.

Let us understand McGregor’s theory X and theory Y of motivation and understand how it applies to the workplace.

Understanding Theory X and Theory Y

In his book, ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’, McGregor explained Theory X and Theory Y. The two theories refer to two styles of management—authoritarian (Theory X) and participative (Theory Y).

If you are of the belief that your team members dislike their work and have little motivation towards their work, then your style of management is most likely to be authoritarian. McGregor called this as Theory X. This is an approach that is considered to be very ‘hands-on’. This involves micromanaging the people’s work to make sure that it gets done in the right way.

On the other hand, if you think that your team members take their work seriously, that they take pride in what they do and strive to perform best, then your management style is participative. He called this approach as Theory Y. The managers who use this approach trust their team members in taking the ownership of their work and do it effectively by themselves.

The approach you take will influence your team members. Therefore it is important to understand your perceptions of ‘what motivates them?’ as it can shape your style of management.

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Let us take an in-depth look at both of these theories

Theory X-

The managers who go with this approach are generally pessimistic. They assume that their team members dislike their work and are naturally unmotivated. And as a result of these assumptions, they believe that their team members constantly need to be rewarded, prompted or punished to finish their work.

The organizations that use such an approach tend to have a repetitive nature of work. The motivation theory used for the people is that of ‘carrot and stick’. The employees are generally given performance appraisals and remuneration based on their work outputs.

This style of management assumes that the team members-

  • Dislike their work
  • Tend to avoid responsibility and need constant direction
  • Have to be controlled, threatened to complete their work
  • Have a constant need of supervision at every step

Although, according to McGregor, this approach of management is applied where there are several tiers of managers and supervisors. But in the recent times, Theory X style or management has largely fallen out of practice. Speaking of the larger organizations, they find it unavoidable to adapt this style just because of the number of people and the deadlines.

Theory Y-

Unlike the Theory X managers, Theory Y managers are optimistic, and their style of management is decentralized and participative. This approach of management encourages a collaborative and a trust-based relationship between the managers and the team members.

The people are given greater responsibility and their managers trust and encourage them to develop their skills. This approach also uses appraisals, but unlike Theory X approach, they are used to encourage open communication and good performance rather than to control the staff. 

Their style of management assumes that that team member’s are-

  • Happy to work on their own initiative
  • More involved in decision making
  • Self motivated to complete the tasks
  • View work as fulfilling and challenging
  • Solve problems creatively and imaginatively

The Theory Y style of management is more popular among the organizations. This is because this increases the employees’ desire for meaningful careers and provides them with experience than just money.

Theory Y is viewed superior to Theory X. This is because; Theory X reduces the people to ‘clogs in machine’ and is more likely to de-motivate people in the long-run.

Most managers generally use the mixture of the two theories. But one can also favor one to the other. Like some may have a natural leaning towards micromanaging the people, while some opt for the hand-off approach.

At any given time, and irrespective of any theory you use, it is ultimately your goal to understand your team members and get the best out of them!


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