Management theory: the modern X and Y managers

Scrabble tiles spelling out lead, team and succeed

Have you ever heard of Theory X and Theory Y management? This management theory was first explored by Douglas McGregor in his book, “The Human Side of Enterprise and refers to two different styles of management. While you may be familiar with each of the management theories, you may feel your methods of managing teams has had to change dramatically due to a shift to more remote ways of working. This can understandably be uncomfortable- we all may be used to working and managing in a particular way. Let’s go back to basics- examine both styles, and see how they apply to the modern manager. Perhaps the key isn’t rewriting the book, but learning how to flex to the current situation, so both us and our team members feel heard and respected.

Theory X and Y: An overview

If you believe that your team members dislike work, have little natural motivation to do a good job, and are individual goal- orientated, then according to McGregor, you likely use an authoritarian style of management. This generally involves a more ‘hands-on’ approach and inevitably micromanaging your team’s workload to ensure it is done to your required standard.

McGregor called this Theory X.

On the other hand, if you believe people take pride in their work, see it as a personal challenge to do well, and are motivated by intrinsic goals, you are more likely to adopt a participative management style. This tends to involve more trust and autonomy, allowing people to take ownership of their work and do it by themselves.

McGregor called this Theory Y.

As a manager you may have more of a preference the management theory of X or Y and this may have a significant impact on your ability to motivate your team members- not everyone responds well to both styles.

So, with that in mind, it is important to understand what motivates your team, and how this may be shaping your management style. As many teams may be working remotely, it is more relevant than ever to be able to understand and manage our teams effectively.

The Theory of Management

Theory X

While there is no right or wrong management theory, Theory X is the more pessimistic of the two models.

It usually involves assuming that people are naturally unmotivated and dislike being at work. As a result, Theory X managers assume their team members need to be tempted, rewarded or punished constantly in order to ensure they complete their necessary tasks.

According to McGregor, the organisations that have a Theory X approach tend to host several tiers of managers to oversee and direct their team members. Autonomy is rarely given, so control remains centralised, with managers adopting an authoritarian approach, actively being involved in projects in order to to get things done.

While this approach is increasingly less popular in modern times, occasionally organisations may still find themselves needing to adopt it, due to the large numbers of people that they employ and tight deadlines they must meet.

When it comes to managing remote teams, Theory X managers may find themselves struggling with the lack of visibility over their team members; experiencing a serious sense of lost control. This can put additional pressure on Theory X managers, leading to potential work-related stress and tension within themselves and their team.

If you deploy management theory X as a remote manager, you could ensure your team checks in regularly, or keep diaries of their work days and arrange catch up calls to discuss their progress daily, to provide you with the visibility you need.

Now let’s look at the other side.

The Theory of management x

Theory Y

Theory Y managers are the polar opposite of Theory X; they have an optimistic, positive opinion of their team members, and prefer to adopt a decentralised, participative management style.

This management theory encourages collaboration and trust between managers and their team members.

Through this, team members feel like they have greater responsibility, and their managers encourage them to develop their personal skills and suggest improvements. Appraisals are regularly undertaken, but unlike the Theory X approach, they are used to encourage communication and honesty, rather than to control staff actions.

Overall, management theory Y has become more popular over recent years, reflecting the modern workforce’s desire for a more meaningful career, looking for more than just financial gain from their working day.

Similar to Theory X managers, Theory Y managers may be having their own difficulties managing remote teams. While they thrive on autonomy and positivity, the enforced distance and isolation may reduce team energy and communication. This can lead to the Theory Y manager feeling demotivated and isolated.

There are available ways for teams to help combat these feelings of separation however. Regular communication through both formal and informal platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, email or other instant messengers and scheduling in regular video calls just to catch up can be really beneficial.

There you have it.

Final Thoughts

As we said before, there is no right or wrong management theory but it is important to remember that your assumptions about what motivates your employees can have a huge impact on the way you manage them. Take into account your management style- do you need to realign it to fit your team?

It is also key to remember that managing remote teams could be putting some pressure on your own personal management style, but paying attention to which you identify with will help you to see which areas may require a different approach. After all, managing a team has to take in to account two parties- you, and your team members- so your management style needs to work for both of you.

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