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Theory X and Theory Y: Which is the Best Style of Leadership

  • Post category:Leadership
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Theory X and Theory Y are two distinctly different management styles. You can employ them in your management or leadership role and interactions with your team. Douglas McGregor developed the concept in his book, “The Human Side of Enterprise.” McGregor proposed that Theory X and Theory Y divide the task of management into two unique styles. Just like your high school algebra class, X and Y aren’t totally independent. However, you can manage in a style that is mostly a Theory X or Theory Y style.

Your style of management develops as you gain cues from your professional environment. The type of work you need to accomplish and the locus of control of your workforce also play a role. Furthermore, the strength and talent of your workforce, along with your ultimate beliefs about how to motivate individuals also contribute to your style of leadership.

Note: The variables explain why, in some situations, you will find that Theory X management is more effective. In others, you will find that Theory Y is necessary to lead. In a third setting, a combination of the two management styles will ultimately help you achieve your goals.

This article will provide a succinct summary and guidelines on how best to apply both Theory X and Theory Y methods of leadership.

Theory X Management Style

The overarching idea behind Theory X management is that humans are naturally lazy. This theory also states that humans will only work if their manager forces them to work. In short, if a manager doesn’t stand up and shout, “get back to work!” nothing will happen. This style of leadership assumes that humans only work because they have to work. This concept results in the belief that the motivation to work must come from an external source, which is a manager of some sort in most cases.

Theory X

Theory Y Management Style

On the other hand, Theory Y management supports the idea that people develop a sense of self-worth from completing meaningful work. In other words, if the work is fulfilling, employees will do a good job because it’s important to them.

Sidebar: It’s important to recognize how these two theories can conflict with each other. However, both theories also share a lot of common ground. It’s 100% possible to exhibit both methods of management. It all depends on the job and the individual leading the team. The real question is, how can you, as a manager, use these theories to make your company a better place to work?

What Type of Work Do You Do?

Let’s be honest here – some of the work you do is just flat-out boring. There’s no getting around this cold hard fact. This is why it’s called work. Many things that make the world spin are boring and tedious. You may think that this type of work demands Type X management. Furthermore, you may think that the only reason people take this kind of job is that they can’t find any other work.

You believe that employees would rather do anything other than this boring, monotonous work. This then directly results in you assuming that they’ll slack off if you’re not looking over their shoulder and micromanaging. This type of management typically results in a lack of trust, and more importantly, next to no creativity or innovation.

The majority of screaming and frustrated managers agree that Type X management is the way to go. Seriously though, how many times do you really have to tell your team to get off their phones and get back to work.

Change the Value Proposition & Earn Employee Commitment

Take a moment to consider the value of what you’re really doing. If the work doesn’t have value people won’t hire your business. This, in turn, would result in your business failing and going belly up. So what value does your business bring to the table?

Let’s say you manage a janitorial business. Sweeping floors isn’t terribly inspiring. However, if you look at the great service you do for the public, you could very well develop a different viewpoint with your employees. This new description – providing a service to the public – makes the role of sweeping floors much more valuable and meaningful. Heck, you could even make the argument that a NASA janitor contributed to successfully landing a man on the moon!

Tip: If you focus on how doing a god job can lead to better and different opportunities, you can potentially change your employees’ internal motivation. By simply shifting from Type X to Type Y makes a huge difference in how your employees view their work and its value. This ultimately benefits all parties involved.

Many white-collar jobs fall under the Theory Y management style. These employees want to engage with their work, they look for jobs that are fulfilling, and work long hours to succeed in what they do. In situations such as this, managers can stand back and let their team simply do their work.

Is Theory X Ever the Right Way to Manage?

Sadly, some managers are simply stuck on Theory X and don’t know any other way to manage. This is why countless teams fall victim to micro-managers who judge their team based on facetime rather than trust. Furthermore, they also double-check everything their team does due to the aforementioned lack of trust. These types of managers also strive to control every aspect of the team’s processes and system. Doesn’t this sound like an awful work environment?

However, there are many employees who need this sort of prodding from their manager. Some people don’t do a good job and could care less about the business, the clients, or simply a job well done.

The best outcome is to avoid hiring individuals like this in the first place. However, you need to recognize and understand that if you pray and prestige are sub-par, you will likely end up with this type of employee more often than not. If this is the case, you will likely need to micro-manage these employees to get their work done. This mindset typically holds true even if micromanagement doesn’t yield better employee engagement.

When Theory X and Theory Y Collide

Theory X Theory Y Collide

Many a time, Theory X managers treat a team of diligent and hard-working employees as if they’re total slackers. This will likely cause potentially valuable employees to quit and you’ll likely find yourself subject to above-average turnover rates.  On the contrary, if you have slacker employees and treat them as if they’re self-motivated, you’ll end up going insane when nothing gets done.

Sidenote: Getting the right match between the management style and the needs of each employee is key element to success. Some employees do require micromanagement and others cringe at the thought of micromangement. This is why it’s essential that you differentiate your management methods based on your employee’s intentions.

In the end, the best solution is to hire the right people all of the time – employees who are driven and whom you can trust to do their work without supervision. However, this isn’t always easy to do and you may find yourself with a team that requires more management than you care to provide.

It’s worth noting that with a little elbow grease and re-evaluation of tasks, you can teach your team to become more independent. However, this is not an easy task. If you can successfully hire superior, self-motivated employees who are the best fit for your business, then you can apply Theory Y management and offer casual coaching and advice here and there.

Andrew Roche

Andrew Roche is a Digital Consultant at Shift Digital. He is also pursuing an MBA in Marketing & Finance through the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University

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