Management Theory X and Theory Y


One of the constants of the working world is management. With very few exceptions, people have managers. Independent contractors still must answer to their customers, and even CEOs must act on the behalf of shareholders. Obviously, there are large numbers of people that manage others. The funny part of this is that most people who start to manage others have no idea what they are doing. This is not because they are incapable, but because it can be something that people fundamentally disagree on.

I'm going explain two opposing theories of management, but while you read, consider how difficult it would be to navigate a working environment where your manager feels one way about management, but their manager held the opposing view. I think it is this reason that people do not actually talk about how people should be managed, and instead let archaic value systems and cultures define how businesses run today.

The two opposing theories are called Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X is that people inherently do not want to work, so they need to be coerced into their roles and forced to take responsibility. Proponents of Theory X believe that their employees are going through the motions for their paychecks and are lazy, unless given clearly defined rewards and punishments. It is easy to remember Theory X because we can imagine the X as a person crossing their arms, refusing to do any work.

The opposite view is Theory Y, which I am a heavily biased believer in. Theory Y aligns with the statement that "work is as natural as rest and play." I remember that quote from a psychology class I took in high school and think about it whenever I am doing something that is not traditionally fun but is something I want to do. People are intrinsically motivated to achieve and by giving them work that they find energy in, they will naturally put energy into it. The Y in Theory Y is supposed to symbolize someone raising their arms in the air, happily accepting work.

Education systems show their clear choices in which theories they prescribe to. State run education systems that cut or increase funding based on test scores show a Theory X preference, while Montessori programs would be more Theory Y aligned. Montessori schools allow students to explore the topics they find interesting and encourage them to learn that way. If people were not intrinsically motivated, Montessori programs would not work.

With the basics of the theories explained, I want to make it clearer why I am a subscriber to Theory Y. I want to be a believer in people and that we all have the desire to rise above our current ability and performance, but I also recognize that there are lazy people. There are lots of people who would happily move through life putting in no effort. However, imagine you manage a large group with hundreds of employees, and you could assume that it is evenly divided between the intrinsically motivated and those who are not. I believe the best approach is to manage for the intrinsically motivated. If done properly, those motivated employees will work to achieve the aims and desires of the group, with little to no supervision. You can trust that they going to get their work done in whatever their preferred style is. You will have freeloaders, but the output of the motivated half exceeds the output which would come from managing for the non-motivated. If you manage this group according to Theory X, you could assume the lazier half would be performing at their maximum, but the motivated half would feel constrained and not trusted. Actions that they could see adding value to the organization would go unperformed, if they are not allowed to operate outside the bounds of their role, because they would lose interest after being punished for the behavior of the whole.

I think everyone can draw a parallel in their own work experience, but I will share my own. When I have been in projects that temporarily fall behind schedule, the first response is for leadership to ask for Fridays on the client site, rather than the usual travel back home to our respective cities and working from our local office or from home on Friday. Projects that offer flexible travel schedules with entire weeks away from the client site ask that everyone be on site every week. In small to medium sized teams, this can be implemented, but it is impossible to measure if the output increased. The input has nothing to do with completing work, so why could one assume that the output would? On larger teams, this is near impossible to carry out. Those that do not want to travel will find a way to avoid it, and instead it punishes those that are intrinsically motivated and pulling more than their fair share, regardless of travel schedule.

I do not manage anyone directly, but when I do, I will manage according to Theory Y and trim the fat when people cannot operate under those conditions, because I would rather foster intrinsic motivation than enforce external. I will give in the small and uncomplicated ways that will bring results in multiples.

I intend for this to hold true for my future parenting style. I will offer as many experiences to my children as I can, and let them decide what they have interest in. I believe people naturally develop interests, and if fostered, they can prove value no matter what they are. I will trust my children are developing their skills and interests without forcing them down particular paths. I know many children forced into sports or musical instruments as children that they later regret. It results in wasted time for the children and frustration for the parents. Allowing them to find their own interests and allowing them to flourish in them will supply better results. Everyone was at one time a child, so the same strategies apply.