The theory of management: Theory X&Y

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Have you ever heard of Theory X and Theory Y?

The model was first explored by Douglas McGregor in his book, “The Human Side of Enterprise and refers to two different styles of management.

Theory X and Y: An overview

If you believe that your team members dislike work and have little natural motivation to do a good job, 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 and see it as a personal challenge to do well, 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 for X or Y and this may have a significant impact on your ability to motivate your team members as not everyone responds well to both styles.

So, with that in mind, it is important to understand how your perceptions of what motivates your team can shape your management style particularly as many managers are remote from their team. This may be more relevant than ever given the levels of remote working taking place currently.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

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The Theory of Management

Theory X

While there is no right or wrong 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 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.

In the current situation, 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 are a Theory X manager in the current environment, 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 approach 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, 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 with the current situation. 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 theory but it is important to remember that your assumptions about what motivates people can have a huge impact on your team. Also, take into account your manager’s style especially when you are one of a number of management layers – how do you flex to suit your manager?

It is also key to remember that the situation we are in at the moment, could be putting some pressure on your management style, particularly if you fit into one of these categories.

Paying attention to which management style you identify with will help you to see which areas of your team may require a different approach, what your organisational factors are, and how it can influence the output of work done by your team.

Do you identify with one theory more than the other? How is the current situation affecting your management style?

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