Theory X and Theory Y definition

Theory X and Theory Y, developed by MIT management professor Douglas Murray McGregor, are theories of human motivation that provide a framework for how managers use behaviours and tools in the workplace to encourage productivity. Both theories are concerned with how best to motivate employees through providing the most relevant provisions, but they differ in what they believe are the most basic and powerful of human needs in the workplace.

Theory X suggests that human beings are inherently lazy, dislike the concept of work and are only in the workplace because they need money. Managers who subscribe to this theory will typically see interactions with employees as transactional and feel the need to rely on strong financial incentives, coercion and authoritarian control to ensure productivity is maintained in the workplace. Theory X managers may be predisposed to seeing human failing as the cause of problems rather than systemic or structural causes.

Theory Y is underlined by a belief that work comes naturally to human beings and that they can both motivate themselves and also exercise self-control – it is in essence a more positive view of human beings than Theory X. Under Theory Y, employees seek out responsibility and enjoy performing at a high level. Organisations underpinned by Theory Y are more likely to have cultures of trust, transparency and engagement as well as healthy two-way relationships between managers and subordinates.

Many commentators feel the reality is a combination of Theory X and Theory X that is sensitive to normal ebbs and flows of external pressures and personal circumstances. 

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