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Douglas McGregor’s X and Y Theories

Throughout the history of industry, managers have tried to find new ways to motivate their workers, and maximize the utilization of each worker. Several theories were introduced and utilized throughout the years. Most of these theories faired pretty well, but had the common idea that the worker must be coerced into performing their duties in an acceptable manner. Douglas McGregor had a profound impact on this way of thinking by suggesting that treating workers as responsible, creative, and motivated human beings would allow them to reach their full potential and help contribute to the overall goal.

McGregor’s Theories
Douglas McGregor, best known for his comparison of the X and Y theories of management, is often considered the father of the Y management theory. (Douglas Mcgregor: Theory X and Theory Y, 1998) The Y management theory implies that employees as responsible individuals, who are motivated by a sense of accomplishment. According to the theory, this motivation actually causes a desire to work, ultimately increasing productivity. The X theory implies that management believes that employees are lazy and unmotivated, and that the only way to receive quality work from them is to use punitive coercion. (Brawn, 2005)
Both of these theories have been proven practical to industry, depending on the application. It is even argued that the Y theory would only work in the upper corporate levels of an organization, and that type X management would work well for menial tasks that do not require much thought. Many scholars have argued that McGregor’s theories are inaccurate, and some have downright rejected them. Whatever the belief about McGregor’s theories, their importance is evident, because they are still taught in many courses on management, and their impact can still be seen in industry today. (Jacobs & Nord, 2004)
The X Theory
Theory X, called the traditional view by McGregor, begins with the manager’s opinion that most human beings do not like working, and would avoid it at every opportunity. This perceived employee attitude contrasts sharply with the overall objectives of enterprise. Because of this viewpoint management sought to implement controls to counter this trait. (McGregor, 1960)
In the traditional view most people would have to be forced to work by the threat of punishment. Managers who support this view believe that the desire to not work is so strong that offering rewards would not be enough to achieve acceptable results. In turn, the worker would only begin demanding more rewards and the acceptable level of production would never be achieved. In this view, the only reason a worker would be motivated to achieve acceptable results is to avoid the possibility of punitive action. (McGregor, 1960)
Another implication of theory X is that the average person prefers direction from a superior and would always choose fewer responsibilities rather than the opportunity to better oneself. In this style of management, managers perceive their workers as having a lack of motivation and the preference of job security over the possibility of promotion. These beliefs are not typically expressed in public, however, they are evident in many company’s regulations and management policies. (McGregor, 1960)
Most modern day theorists would probably agree that the X theory is somewhat inaccurate, but it is not completely wrong, and is often effectively used today. Douglas McGregor, while being a critique of the X theory, expressed some of the relevance of this theory (McGregor, 1960) when he wrote:
Theory X provides an explanation of some human behavior in industry. These assumptions would not have persisted if there were not a considerable body of evidence to support them. Nevertheless, there are many readily observable phenomena in industry and elsewhere which are not consistent with this view of human nature. (p.35)
The Y Theory
Theory Y, often considered a kinder approach to management, contradicts theory X. According to theory Y, the average person does not dislike work and finds a degree of satisfaction in performing tasks. This would imply that most people would not have to be coerced into working just to avoid punitive action. This type of management involves more of a team approach to productivity and encourages individual growth and positive support from management. (Brawn, 2005)
McGregor believes that people would complete tasks in order to gain a sense of achievement. The greatest of these needs, such as self actualization and satisfying the ego, can be achieved from the completion of organizational goals. Most people would become more productive, assume more responsibility, and want to accomplish organizational goals, to gain a sense of achievement. In essence, everybody wins in this situation; the organization receives optimal output from the worker, and the worker benefits emotionally. (McGregor, 1960)
Theory Y managers would tend to believe that the average person has a great capacity for ingenuity and creativity. This capacity could be realized through the accomplishment of goals, and the nurturing and support of managers. (Collins, 1996) The average human, under the proper conditions, has a vast capacity for learning, and would willingly accept greater responsibility. (McGregor, 1960)
Imagination is another aspect of the human psyche that McGregor believed was inherent in professionals and laypersons alike. McGregor (McGregor, 1960) states, “The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.” McGregor believed that modern industry was not conducive to creative thought, and that only a very small portion of a workers potential intellect was being used on the job. (McGregor, 1960)
In the book, “The Human Side of Enterprise,” McGregor introduces Theory Y as the integration of the goals of the individual, and the goals of the business. This could definitely sum up the nature of the relationship between employee and employer. The overall job satisfaction would not only impact the employee in a positive way, but it would also greatly benefit the employer by increasing production, and overall profits. Because of this perceived integration, managers began implementing a team effort approach to achieving organizational goals. This action brings even more job satisfaction to the average worker by giving them a sense of belonging. (Brawn, 2005)
The Y theory, often criticized as being outdated or invalid by many modern day management theorists, cannot simply be dismissed. This theory is taught and utilized through out the world, and in many organizations. It has not only shaped the way employees are viewed, but also the very language used in management. (Jacobs & Nord, 2004) Industry today would probably be very different if McGregor had not published his theories.
How to Effectively Use the Y Theory
In “The Human Side of Enterprise,” (McGregor, 1960) McGregor writes about the four phases to implement a Y theory management concept. The first phase makes clear the importance of outlining the job requirements in a fashion that the employee will understand. This process will help each employee narrow down what he or she should be focusing on, and help every employee work toward the common goal instead of competing against each other. (McGregor, 1960)
The Second phase, illustrates the importance of setting goals for certain periods of time. Sometimes called the planning phase, this phase would help the employee further narrow down his or her area of focus. Instead of being overwhelmed by trying to tackle the overall goal, all at once; the employee would be able to concentrate on what is most relevant for this time frame. This would encourage the employee to take responsibility for his or her actions, and would help management and the employee work together to correct the issues that may have caused the goal not to be met. Likewise, the employee would gain a sense of achievement for the goals that he or she does meet. (McGregor, 1960)
The third phase, discusses the implementation of different management processes during certain phases of operations, or different time frames of employment for subordinates. This process is important because a manager must realize an employee’s experience level warrants different treatment. It would be foolish to expect the new employee to know as much about the job and be able to perform at the same level as the experienced employee. (McGregor, 1960)
Taking into account matters such as financial loss and the possibility of injury, sometimes it is better for the company, if the manager steps back and lets the employee make some mistakes while he or she is learning. The employee would often learn from these mistakes, or this would allow management and the employee to reflect on these mistakes and find solutions to avoid them. This process results in the employee becoming better equipped to perform his or her job, which would increase the overall profitability of the employee. (McGregor, 1960)
The final phase would be to periodically evaluate the personal performance of the employee. This evaluation is a valuable tool because it allows management and the employee to review the employee’s performance. It also gives the employee valuable criticism and allows him or her to make the necessary adjustments to improve his or her overall performance. Management would also receive a series of checks and balances from these evaluations, helping them decide how to reward or even punish individuals according their performance. It would help determine the amount of a raise an employee would get, or possibly help find the grounds to terminate the employment of an individual. (McGregor, 1960) No matter if used it as teaching tool, or used to reward or punish employees, the performance evaluation is a very effective tool.
Douglas McGregor introduced us to two management theories which are relevant in the work place. The X theory emphasizes on coercing people to work by threats of punitive action. The Y theory focuses on motivating employees by treating them like responsible individuals, thus creating a desire to perform. Both theories have been proven useful depending on the application.
Douglas McGregor’s theories, no matter how irrelevant some scholars might find them, must not be ignored. I have definitely seen variations of the Y theory in use during my own working experience, and cannot foresee a sea change in management style on the horizon. While many organizations do not follow McGregor’s theories exactly; many underlining principals of the Y theory can be easily seen throughout several organizations. The “kinder gentler” approach of the Y theory might not reflect the values of every society, but I think it is a great reflection of the democratic ideals of the society that we live in today.
McGregor’s Y theory would be substantially beneficial in an electronics management environment. This theory would help employers and employees alike adapt to an ever changing technical world. Most workers in the electronics industry have a great deal of technical knowledge, and Y theory management would allow the employer to better utilize that knowledge. Because of the employee’s desire to perform better, his or her knowledge of the job would also increase. This would result in better employees and a more profitable business.