Theory X, Theory Y and Prophecies

Paul Oldfield |


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Exploring Employee Supervision and Management Style.

In brief, Theory X and Theory Y, formulated by Douglas McGregor at MIT Sloane School of Management in the ‘60s, are about Management’s attitude to their workers.

Theory X says that Management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can and that they inherently dislike work.

Theory Y says that Management assumes employees are keen to do a good job of work, they find it in general enjoyable and fulfilling.

Well, it probably depends to some degree on what the work is. If we take the “Simple” quadrant of the Cynefin framework, perhaps certain of the work is inherently drudgery that will fail to stimulate all but the most keen. Yet in the other 3 quadrants it would be nigh on impossible to put in an effective structure of supervision and control to micro-manage employees in what is essentially variable work that requires the people doing the work to think for themselves.

This, however, is just background to the topic I wanted to talk about. I suggest that both Theory X and Theory Y are self-fulfilling prophecies. If Management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can and that they inherently dislike work, then the supervision and controls they put in place will remove from the employee most of their opportunities for independence of thought, for experimentation and learning, for self-motivation and self-organisation. A person who has no chance to practice these skills will not develop them. They will grow into people who dislike work, who avoid it where possible, who appear to be inherently lazy.

Conversely, when employees are treated with respect and given the opportunities to grow, they will grow the skills of self-motivation, self-organization and independence of thought, as far as their capacity allows such growth. Thus Theory Y also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… provided the individuals haven’t spent so long under a Theory X regime that they have lost all capacity to become anything better.

So, when hiring, attitude is key. Yet if attitude of the employees you have as candidates is important, attitude of your Managers toward your employees is far more important. Take care when a Manager starts talking in terms of strict hierarchy, strong supervision and tight control; such approaches are only suitable for “Simple” quadrant work…and increasingly these days the work we do no longer falls into that quadrant.

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