McGregor's theory X and theory Y
Jul 15, 2021
Although when we think of psychology we are usually imagining the study of the psyche and human behavior in a clinical context, the truth is that this discipline works with multiple other scopes; it is not limited solely to a sanitary aspect.
The mind is an object of study that remains active at all times, situations and contexts. One of the areas in which multiple investigations have also been carried out in occupational psychology, which is in charge of the Psychology of Work and Organizations. In this area, elements such as the leadership, authority, standards and employee productivity.
There are multiple theories that have emerged throughout history and the authors who have worked in this area, including Douglas Murray McGregor, who developed two opposing theories in which both the way of exercising traditional leadership and a more humanistic one that advocated the Author: it's about theory X and theory Y of McGregor. Let's see what they consist of.
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McGregor's Theories X and Y
From the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the first factories, the need to manage the way in which workers carried out their work appeared. The great amount of labor exploitation that occurred at the time and that has continued over the centuries is known, with an exhaustive control of what each employee did and providing few freedoms, in addition to being limited to performing one or more specific tasks indicated by management (addressing both what should be done and what should be done as).
Also known are numerous revolts carried out to improve the conditions of workers, which would eventually lead to the creation of unions. Employee performance and productivity was always something to consider for managers, using different strategies and the majority being the use of control, sanction and coercion to promote productivity, and money as a reward. But except for those whose basic needs were not met, productivity did not improve excessively.
The emergence of psychology as a science allowed the analysis of this type of situation and different theories were developed. Although the first theories considered the need for greater control and considered the worker mainly lazy, later other currents arose contrary to this belief.
One of these authors, in this case from the 20th century, was Douglas McGregor. This author is based on Maslow's theory of motivation and his hierarchy of human needs to propose that the lack of motivation and labor productivity is due to the fact that once the basic needs are met, the stimuli necessary to satisfy them cease to be motivating. New needs such as esteem and self-fulfillment are generated that most companies of the time were not interested in supplying. For this reason, he proposes a new mode of business operation in the face of the limitations of the traditional one: the theory Y, which contrasts with the traditional model or theory X, both models being mutually exclusive.
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The so-called theory X is an elaboration of McGregor from which tries to explain the way of understanding the company and the worker that had been the majority up to now.
This traditional view considers the worker as a passive entity that must be forced to work, a lazy being who tends to work as little as possible and whose only motivation to do so is get money. He is seen as poorly informed, unable to manage change and conflict, and unambitious. Without an exhaustive control they would not carry out their tasks.
Under this consideration, the management must show leadership capacity and exercise continuous control over employees in order to avoid their passivity. The behavior of the workers will be controlled and all responsibilities will be assumed, providing them with limited tasks.
Leadership is therefore exercised in an authoritarian way and pointing out what each one should do and how. The rules are strict and strong sanctions, coercions and punitive measures are established to keep employees working. Money and remuneration are used as the basic element of motivation.
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In theory X McGregor makes explicit the traditional way of understanding work that has existed since the time of the Industrial Revolution. However, he considers that it was necessary to start from a different theory that had a different vision of the worker and his role in the company. The result of this was theory Y.
This theory indicates that management should be responsible for organizing the company and its resources in order to meet its objectives, but that employees are not a passive but an active element unless they are pushed into it. The value and importance of motivation and challenge are indicated, a value that is not usually taken advantage of and workers are prevented from developing to their maximum potential. Nor is it observed that each individual has their own objectives that often have not been reflected with those of the company.
In this sense, it is the management of the company that must be organized in such a way that the work encourages said development and allows the worker to fulfill not only some objectives to which he does not feel linked, but also in the process of achieving the goals of the company he can also achieve his own goals. It is also valued that the commitment is greater when there is recognition of their achievements, and that applying the skills of workers can generate solutions to unforeseen organizational problems or for which the management does not have a valid solution.
This theory, which the author defended before the traditional or X, is based fundamentally on the idea of promoting the self-government and favor the self-control and autonomy of the worker, instead of seeing it as one more piece of the gear. It is proposed to enrich the work by making the worker responsible for different tasks and encourage him to be active and participatory, capable of making his own decisions and feeling committed to his work. Training, providing information, negotiating objectives and responsibilities and generating a climate of trust are essential for good business operation.
It would therefore be a matter of exercising leadership that allows participation and trust, in which the work of the worker, in which work is expanded and enriched and personal responsibility (for example, through the delegation of responsibilities) and that focuses on the achievement of objectives rather than authority and personal power.
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Difficulties of implementation of theory Y
The author himself, although he proposes theory Y as desirable and objective to be achieved, recognizes the existence of obstacles and the Difficulty generating a change at a time when the operation of most companies was governed by the theory classical. For example, there is the fact that managers should change their mindset and reorganize both their organizational structure and how it works, which they will tend to resist.
In addition, he also indicates that it can be difficult for the worker to make this change, because in many cases they have become accustomed to the fact that the field tell them and demand a specific way of proceeding and to be controlled, as well as that their needs are only satisfied outside of work. The potential of the workers has been limited by the expectation of the management that they are passive entities those who must be forced to work, largely losing motivation for work.
What does Organizational Psychology say today?
Over time, the work paradigm was changing and the worker was no longer seen as a merely passive element in a large number of areas. Today we can see how a large majority of companies try to promote autonomy, and that proactivity has become one of the most demanded values in the workplace.
However, later authors indicated that the Y model does not always have good results: the most optimal type of operation will depend on the type of task to be performed. Other models have been proposed that attempt to integrate aspects of the traditional (X) and the humanistic (Y) vision, in the so-called equilibrium theories.
- McGregor, D.M. (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. In Yarhood, D.L. (1986). Public Administration, Politics and People: Selected Readings for Managers, Employees and Citizens, New York: Longman Publishing Group; 134-144.
- Lussier, R. N. & Achua, C. F. (2008). Leadership. Mexico: Cengage Learning.