Motivational Leadership: McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 22nd April 2015

When Douglas McGregor first published his seminal work The Human Side of Enterprise, he probably didn’t expect to start an argument that would still be raging 50 years after his death.

In his theory about management attitudes at two opposite poles (McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y), he never intended to indicate that X was ‘bad’ and Y ‘good’, nor that any leader should find a spot between the two and set up camp. However, commentators and practitioners have often misinterpreted his ideas to assume exactly that. Let’s put the record straight.

Motivational Leadership: McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Putting things into context

To start off with, here’s a brief definition of McGregor’s theory X and theory Y.

Theory X: This refers to an authoritarian management style, where reward and punishment is seen as the best way to motivate employees to meet objectives. Leaders know best, and should closely direct actions taken by staff, with little room for independence and responsibility.

Theory Y: This theory suggests that employees work best when emotionally invested in their work. Leaders following this style encourage a high degree of autonomy, with the freedom to share and act on new ideas. When people are allowed to contribute more of their own thoughts and personal abilities to tasks, they naturally care more, and will put more effort into ensuring high standards.

X and Y are both valid styles to adopt at an appropriate moment. It is, as with so much in life, all about being in the right place at the right time. It is not a sin to be directive, nor is it necessarily a virtue to be a democrat.

It is true, however, that in today’s organisational climate, where competitive edge requires constant innovation, where remote working is normal, and in the wake of decades of de-layering that has reduced the numbers of middle managers and greatly increased their span of control, it is likely that a leader or manager will need to frequent the ‘Y’ half of the continuum far more frequently than in the 80s or 90s.

I would add that, should you be lucky enough to have a skilled and mature workforce, you drift toward the X end at your peril, other than for a limited number of circumstances.

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Reacting to circumstances

The capable modern leader needs to be able to flex, arriving at the point on the continuum of X to Y that is most likely to meet the needs of a given situation. The ‘best’ position between the two ‘poles’ in a given moment may be influenced by many factors, including:

  • The severity of the consequences and ‘risks’ associated with the relevant action, task or decision
  • The need for speed and immediate action
  • The capabilities, performance and experience of the relevant individual or team being ‘managed’
  • The degree to which there is a ‘known right answer’ that makes the decision self-evident
  • The relationship between the manager and team member
  • The opportunities for learning and innovation that might result from consultation with and by the team
  • The culture and expectation of the organisation and team

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but serves to indicate some of the key considerations in making leadership style choices.

The sin to be avoided at all costs is making the choice based on the leader’s own preferences, rather than the needs of the situation. This is a judgement call: a key decision and, as Tony Robbins once memorably said, “ it is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped”.

Tailoring your leadership style to different contexts is covered in more depth on our leadership and management courses. To find out more about gaining a Chartered Management Institute qualification, get in touch.

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