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The XY Theory of Management

The XY theory of management was put forward in 1960 in a book entitled “The Human Side of Enterprise” by an American social psychologist named Douglas McGregor. Although more recent studies of management may show that this theory is a little inflexible it is still referred to regularly in the field of management.

Basically McGregor believed that there are 2 fundamental approaches to managing people i.e. X and Y. Many managers tend towards X and achieve poor results whereas those who use theory Y allow people to grow and develop; thus, achieving better performance. The two styles are also known as: the authoritarian style (X) and the participant style (Y) and they may be described as follows:

Theory X. The Authoritarian manager.

  • This manager views employees from the standpoint that they dislike work and will avoid it if they can.
  • Following on from the above reasoning the manager believes that people must be coerced to work towards company goals under the threat of punishment.
  • They believe that the average person wishes to avoid responsibility and prefers to be directed and that they are unambitious and see their main priority to be security.

Theory Y. The Participant Style manager.

  • This manager believes that effort in work is as natural as work and play.
  • They believe that it is unnecessary to apply external control or punishments to force people to work and that they will exercise self-control and self-direction towards company goals.
  • The employee will work towards objectives in order to receive the reward and satisfaction of achieving that objective.
    This manager feels that employees usually accept and will indeed seek responsibility.
  • They take the viewpoint that most of the population and not just a ‘chosen’ few have the abilities needed to solve organisational problems i.e. imagination, creativity, ingenuity etc.
  • Their thought is that generally, in industry, the intellectual potential of the average person is only partially used.

It is unfortunate that the tendency of managers today is still towards the X theory and it may be recognised by certain behaviours that alienate them from their staff e.g.

a) They can only see the deadline and results required to the exclusion of everything else.
b) They issue commands, ultimatums, demands and threats.
c) They are intolerant, aloof, arrogant, short-tempered and a one-way communicator who doesn’t listen
d) They are insecure and possibly neurotic so seek to apportion blame rather than to learn from errors and they may be vengeful and recriminatory.
e) They do not praise or thank their staff and may even withhold rewards by suppressing pay levels.
f) They do not delegate but mistakenly think that issuing orders is delegation and therefore believe that they are good at it.
g) They hold onto responsibility but pass accountability onto subordinates; however, they will not accept criticism from those in a lower peer group.
h) They have no conception of team building and are unconcerned with staff welfare and morale.
i) They are unhappy

Obviously not all managers display all of the above tendencies and anyone who did would be highly unpleasant as a boss; however, if you do encounter difficulties like those described there are ways to handle the situation. For example you must avoid confrontation and deliver results. Bear in mind that no-one has the right to bully you and if this is genuinely the case it must be dealt with via the correct company procedures.

The best way to deal with a theory X manager is to target your discussion towards results, what you can deliver and when. Be able to offer facts and figures and substantiate what you do. These managers are not interested in human issues so to impress them you need to appear self-motivating with good self-discipline and organisational skills. The more that they can see you are able to manage yourself and produce results the less they will feed the need to do this for you. It is important that you keep to your commitments and promises and that if you feel a task is unrealistic that you state this. Do this in a positive way by being constructive and finding a way in which the task can be completed realistically. Avoid confrontation and never threaten to go over their heads as your life will become much more difficult. Finally if your boss expects you to do something in a way which you do not really feel is correct - don’t argue - instead agree that you can do the task but ask if it is all right to streamline the process where possible. Normally they will agree to this and you have gained control, but you must ensure that you deliver what was decided on time.

Once an X theory manager sees that you can deliver consistently they will give you more leeway on how you perform tasks and therefore more freedom. If you appreciate that most of these managers are forced to this style by the demands of the organisation and their own managers or superiors and that they probably have plenty of their own problems you can make your life easier by making their life easier.

Find out more:

Motivating Others to Perform
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