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Theory X and Y Managers - Is this Management Theory Dead?



Last month I published an article on the management theory of the Peter Principle, and how this principle and the new trends in performance management have some interesting potential correlations.  This month I want to focus on another “lost” management theory, the Theory X and Y managers.

'Theory X' and 'Theory Y' describe different traits of human motivation and management, and they were created and developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s. These theories describe two contrasting models of workforce motivation applied by managers in human resource management, organisational behaviour, organisational communication and organisational development. According to the models, there are two opposing sets of general assumptions of how workers are motivated thus creating two different managerial styles. Theory X stresses the importance of strict supervision, external rewards, and penalties: in contrast, Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision.

In my early management days, this was one of the prominent theories expounded to new managers.   It was all about the mix, as sometimes you needed to be X and sometimes Y, so the secret of being a great manager was to know how to mix up the X and Y traits we all have.

Roll time forward and no one speaks about this particular management theory.   Instead, you have theories of self-managing organisations (read any article on Zappos and Holacracy).  There are dozens of articles about how Millennials want a new type of management.  Millennials want to be led, not managed.  While at the same time, they would prefer rewards for output instead of input.  Also, they want structure, as they are a generation that had significant structure most of their lives (play school, sports, clubs, tutors, camps).  With a multi-generational workforce, what sort of leadership do you provide?   As baby boomers are still more comfortable with a hierarchical structure and if you put different cultures into the picture (Asian versus Western for example) there is a whole other set of dynamics at play for the leaders of business.

So Theory X and Y are not dead, even though they are rarely spoken about, as knowing who you are managing and what style will get the most out of employees is the most important leadership skill of them all.

Article by Mary Sue Rogers

Picture Credit and a good educational article on Theory X and Y

Posted On : 27-09-16

Commented by:  MSR

Craig - thanks for your observations and good points about over thinking what millennials want and don't want. There is no shortage of content on that subject. Thanks for participating in the discussion.

Posted On : 04-10-16

Commented by:  Craig Yetter

While the theories and methods have certainly changed and this feels hopelessly outdated, I still feel uncomfortable with notion that millennials are the ones driving change. I think it is a mass societal change. I'm just as uncomfortable with the old leadership model as my younger colleagues (and I'm in the upper 50's category). I think we are ALL changing and we ALL have different expectations, not just the younger generations.

Posted On : 04-10-16

Commented by:  MSR

Gary - thanks so much for the comment and totally agree with you that different generations do need different things - but it does provide a trip down memory lane.

Posted On : 02-10-16

Commented by:  Gary Bragar

Good articles, brings back good memories of my business/management classes in college in the late 1970's and my 1st, first-line supervisory job in needing to know when to use both theory X and Y. Though not labeled as such anymore, I agree in millennials needing a combination of structure; while being led

Posted On : 02-10-16

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