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Theory X, Theory Y, and the Hybrid

Douglas McGregor proposed two different approaches to management.  Theory X presumes that people are basically disengaged and lazy, desiring to fill only their most basic needs, while Theory Y managers are focused on empowering and enlightening their employees.  While it’s widely believed that Theory Y is a better approach for productivity, it’s also believed that many executives don’t perceive others as being “driven” or motivated.


What does baseball have to do with organizational management?  Perhaps nothing, but people began to notice what the Oakland A’s did in the early 2000s.  In Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains that Bille Beane and his team replaced hunches and instincts with statistics – and it paid off big time.  If we go back a bit further, we learn of Jackie Robinson’s career and his relationship with Al Campanis.  Robinson was the first black Major League Baseball player, and Al was a fellow player who often defended him when it was uncomfortable to do so.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more on the story.)

The story looks like a classic story of Theory Y and the belief in the capabilities of others.  However, there’s a darker side to the story.  Campanis didn’t extend his belief to all black people, nor did he extend his belief of Robinson’s capabilities to baseball team management.  It’s fine, from Campanis view, for Robinson to be a great baseball player – but not a great baseball team manager.  It’s equally normal for Robinson to be a good human and to not change his perception about all black people.

It’s in this that we begin to realize that Theory X and Theory Y are overly simplified perspectives on the dynamic interactions that happen between people and others’ beliefs about their capabilities.

Altruism and Selfishness

Adam Grant in Give and Take describes curious findings.  People who were “givers” ended up at the bottom of the stack – and at the top.  But why?  The answers may lie in the multiple levels of competition.  While Richard Dawkins argued for The Selfish Gene, he was a bit fuzzy about what would constitute a gene.  He simply described it as a unit that replicates, but he didn’t confine it to biology, having coined the word “meme” in the same book.

At the most basic level, when a unit is selfish, it will be more successful almost by definition: to be non-selfish or altruistic means that you’re giving up some of your resources for the benefit of others.  However, odd things happen when you encounter groups of more altruistic replicators vs. those that are selfish.  When altruistic behavior results in a net positive for the group, the individuals that are altruistic within the group are at a disadvantage, but the group itself is at an advantage over other more selfish groups.

The dynamic interplay of the intra- and inter-group forces could account for very good results and relatively poor results.  More than that, the work of Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation and others demonstrates that varying approaches to solving the classic Prisoners Dilemma problem could result in sustained oscillations, where more selfish strategies were dominated by more altruistic or forgiving approaches, until the tide turned and the situation reversed itself.

From the Board Room to Bored in the Room

Executives spend countless hours in meetings being briefed, sharing perspectives, and working with teams.  Whether the executive team at the organization is a cohesive, collaborative group, or it’s relatively cutthroat and conniving, it’s unlikely that an executive will see their peers as being passive or content, like Theory X would presume.  Clearly, at the senior management level, Theory Y should prevail.

Even with the pressures of drive and ambition knocking at their door, most executives have built some personal life, and that personal life often involves children.  While, doubtlessly, executives love their children, it doesn’t always mean that they believe their children have the same drive that they had.  Numbers are hard to find, but college enrollment is falling.  (See Collect Enrollment Statistics.)  At the same time, dropout rates for colleges are climbing.  If executives viewed their college career as their ticket to success, they see their children – or the children of others they know – failing to take advantage of it.

There’s another big factor that is often blamed on millennials.  Job hopping is seen as a problem by many employers, who believe that millennials are changing jobs more frequently than Baby Boomers or Generation X.  However, the data doesn’t seem to support that.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics data implies that average job tenure is one-third of the available working years.  That holds relatively true across age groupings and time.  There are differences – but they tend to be small.  So, the perception is that people are job hopping – trying to find a better or easier job – more than their parents, but this is just how it feels.

The net effect is that, in some places, executives see people who are driven – and other places, including their own families, they see people who seem to need to be motivated to do even the basic things.

What About Ralph

In Work Redesign, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham speak about how to redesign work so that you’re able to get the most out of employees – and they feel the best about their work.  However, in the midst of their work, they speak of the worker they call “Ralph.”  Ralph’s ambitions and beliefs in his ability had long ago been crushed and abandoned.  He was quite content with his role, because he couldn’t withstand the frustration of the gap between his desires and what he was being asked for in the organization.

However, when confronted with challenges to become more engaged – to be more Theory Y – what happened confused Hackman and Oldham.  Ralph resisted the additional responsibilities and freedom, preferring instead to remain in the role as things had been.  They concluded that, had he expanded his horizons now, it would be tacit admission that he shouldn’t have given up in the past and resigned himself to the limited corporate life he had.

So it may be that there are both Theory X and Theory Y people.  It may be that one is treated like the other until they decide to become it, and once they’ve made the decision, it may be hard to get them to change.  It’s not as simple as waving a wand and getting people to step up to greater responsibility – sometimes, it takes helping them accept that previous decisions they’ve made may not be appropriate any longer.

The Training Bellwether

It’s easy to point to training as a bellwether for how management sees the organization.  The question is whether they’re encouraging the continued learning and growth of their employees or whether they’re trying to extract every ounce of short-term productivity that they can.

Henry Ford said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”  For all the perceptions of Henry Ford as a Theory X kind of person, his statement sends a clear message that training is an important part of the development process of employees.  If you’re not training, then you’re trying to extract everything you can.

If you want to see how an organization feels about their employees in general, look to how they train them.

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