The Theory of X and Y (and Z)

I am sitting here at the Shiphol airport, Amsterdam, waiting for my flight to Toronto. (A 4,5 hour transit so I have not much else to do but to write a new blog post…) I had a quick look at the books in the bookstore and my eyes fell on a couple of small books with the titles 50 ideas you really need to know about. 50 concepts within a specific subject described in just a page or two. One of them was about management ideas, written by Edward Russell-Walling. I flipped through it, most of the concepts where of course know to me already, but there was one I hadn’t heard of before, or maybe forgotten, The Theory of X and Y. Douglas McGregor described these two theories in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, thinking that the management style of a leader reflects his/her view of human nature. The idea is that they are two contrasting ideas about how people act and should be treated.

Theory X says that people are lazy, self-centered and must be kept in control with hard rules and firm, and detailed management. These people can only be controlled and only work if their basic lower level needs (physiological and safety, according to Maslow) are at stake. And of course Theory Y then is the opposite, people take responsibility, are full of initiative and will find their own solutions to any problem if they are treated as mature adult persons. Of course drawing on the higher Maslow levels.

Theory Z is then a mix deviced by the Hawaiian-born William Ouchi aimed at mixing American and Japanese practices.

So is the management view of people, or at least developers in your organisation, shifting towards Theory Y? Maybe that is a trend in many areas, but it is interesting to see such an explicit correlation made between American (low level needs, threats, control) and Japanese (higher level needs, inspiration, self-direction) management styles.

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2 Replies to “The Theory of X and Y (and Z)”

  1. People act differently under different circumstances. If one goes after X and Y theories, the key would be to create an environment that would allow and motivate people to act as type Y (since that is, of course, the more desirable case).

    My personal experience is that there is a global shift to management approaches that are leaning towards Y, but I am sad to still see managers that are apparent X theory practitioners.

    The problem is what to do if you work in a team managed by someone who genuinely believes in X theory and behaves accordingly. Those types are usually not interested in human dimensions of work. To which extent is it possible to “manage upwards”?

  2. Very good questions, Jelena! I truely believe in your idea of “managing upwards”, but it has to be done with care. I have been involved in cases where this has happened, but I think the key is to, for a period, accept the non-Y environment and interface to it. Using an iterative approach of inspect and adapt you can gradually convince the environment about one issue or opportunity at the time, act on that and get a little bit further towards Y.
    What definnitely does not work with X-believers is to try to convince them that they are wrong. That will be pointless and just generate heat and frustration.
    The trick is then to spot who is a true X-beliver (or rather Y-non-believer) and who is not.

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