Using Theory X and Theory Y to Pick the Best Management Style

Know in What Situations Each Management Style Is Most Effective

Theory X and Theory Y management styles each has a time and a place when they are effective.
Steve Debenport / Getty Images

If the last time you thought about finding and using X and Y was your high school algebra class, you probably haven’t heard about the Theory X and Theory Y management style. They are distinctly different management styles that you can choose to use in your management or leadership role and interaction with employees.

Developed in the 1960s by Douglas McGregor in his book, “The Human Side of Enterprise," Theory X and Theory Y allocate the job of management into two styles. And, just like your algebra class, X and Y don’t work totally independently, although you can manage in a style that is mostly a Theory X or Theory Y management style.

Your management style evolves as you gain cues from your work environment, the type of work you need to accomplish, the locus of control of your workforce (intrinsically driven or externally), the strength and talent of your workforce, and your ultimate beliefs about how people are motivated. 

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

Here is what you need to know to understand how and when to apply both the Theory X and Theory Y management styles.

Theory X Management Style

The underlying idea with Theory X management style is that humans are inherently lazy and will only work if the manager is forcing them to work. Without a manager standing there saying, “get back to work," nothing will happen. This style makes the assumption that humans only work because they have to work, so the motivation to do the work must come from an external source—the manager.

Theory Y Management Style

In Theory Y management style, people gain self-worth from doing meaningful work. If the work is fulfilling, the employees will do a good job because it’s important to them.

You can see how these two theories can conflict and yet have a lot of crossovers. It’s possible to have both situations true for a manager, depending on the job and the person. Some people are lazy and some are motivated by the desire to do a good job. The question is, how can you, as a line manager or HR manager, use these theories to make your company a better place to work?

What Type of Work Do You Do?

Some work is boring. It is. It’s why it is called work. Many things that make the world go ‘round are boring and tedious. You may think that this type of work calls for you to apply the Theory X management style. You may think that the only reason people take this kind of job is because they can’t find anything better to do.

You believe that employees would rather do anything other than this boring, tedious work. As a direct result, you know that they’ll slack off if you’re not standing there micromanaging how they spend their time and holding them accountable for achieving the results you want to see.

Many screaming and frustrated managers agree with this concept. Seriously, how many times do you really have to tell your employees to get off their phones and back to work?

Change the Value Proposition to Gain Employee Commitment

But, stop and think about the value of what you’re really doing. If the work didn’t have value, people wouldn’t hire your business and you’d be out of business. So what value does your business bring?

Let’s say your company provides janitorial services. Cleaning a toilet isn’t terribly inspiring. But, if you look at the great public health service you provide, you might develop a different viewpoint with your employees. That type of description sounds like a valuable job.

Additionally, if you focus on how doing a good job here can lead to better and different opportunities in the future, you may be able to change your employees' internal motivation. From X to Y. This makes a huge difference in their view of work and its value for them which benefits all parties involved

Many white-collar jobs seem to fall under Theory Y management style. People want to be engaged, look for jobs that are fulfilling, and work long hours to succeed. Managers can stand back and allow employees to just do their work.

Is Theory X Ever the Right Way to Manage?

Some managers can’t get the Theory X management style out of their heads. That’s how you end up with micro-managers who judge employees based on facetime rather than trust, double-check everything employees do, and control every aspect of the work process. This sounds like a terrible work environment.

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

The best outcome for your business is not to hire this type of person in the first place. But recognize that if your pay and prestige are low, you may end up with this type of worker more often than not.

If that’s the case, you may need to micro-manage the employees to get the work done, even if micromanaging doesn’t lead to better employee engagement.

When Theory X and Theory Y Run Into Conflict

If you have employees who are intrinsically motivated and you treat them like they are slackers who won’t work if you take your eyes off them, they’ll hate you and quit. If you have employees who are slackers and you treat them like they are self-motivated, you’ll end up pulling your hair out when nothing gets done.

Getting the right match between the manager's management style and the need of each employee for supervision is one of the key secrets to business success. Some employees do need micro-managing. Other employees will not stand for a micro-manager. You need to differentiate based on the employee's intentions.

The best solution is to hire the right people all of the time: employees who are intrinsically motivated and who you can trust to do the work without supervision. That, however, isn’t always easy to do and you may find yourself with a team that needs a lot more managing than you’d like to do.

You can, however, through hard work, and the re-evaluation of tasks, help teach people to become more independent, but, it's not an easy task. If you can succeed though, in hiring superior, self-motivated employees who are the best for your business, you will be able to use the Theory Y management style. Won't that be grand?


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.