A little bit more X and Y

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

A little bit more X and YI have written before about Douglas McGregor and his Theory X and Theory Y suppositions about management behaviour. (See My Coaching Philosophy)

According to McGregor, Theory X Managers take the view that people:

  • essentially dislike work and will avoid it all together if possible
  • are motivated only by money or fear
  • need discipline and constant supervision
  • can’t be trusted
  • avoid responsibility
  • lack loyalty and commitment
  • lack creativity – accept in finding ways to avoid work!

Let’s just stop for a moment and consider how a manager would treat people if she held this view. I think it’s likely she would:

  • put tight controls in place to ensure people are working when they should be
  • exercise firm control over all activities and have rigorous reporting procedures in place
  • Define work to a fine level of detail and prescribe precisely how tasks should be carried out
  • remind people often that the organisation pays their wages and how easily they can be replaced

Let’s now think about how people are most likely to react if this is typically how they are treated. I would assume they’ll:

  • do what they need to do to get the job done, but no more
  • resist change
  • refuse to take on extra responsibility without more pay
  • resist at all costs requests to work more flexibly

I can’t imagine that creativity and innovation would flourish in this atmosphere either.

Theory Y managers on the other hand, take the view that people:

  • have psychological as well as economic reasons for working
  • are motivated by achievement, recognition, praise, etc
  • work to their own standards – often higher than the boss’s
  • are totally trustworthy
  • seek responsibility
  • are keen to be loyal and committed
  • are a great source of ideas

How would a manager treat her staff if she believed theory Y to be true? Perhaps she would:

  • Offer praise and encouragement, thanking people publicly for their efforts
  • look for contributions from team members in terms of what needs doing and how it should be done
  • set objectives for the team and then leave them alone to carry them out

Treated this way, I think it’s reasonable to expect that her team would:

  • justify the faith she has shown by getting results
  • put in the extra effort when required
  • take on extra responsibility
  • be loyal in difficult times

Neither of these views is right or wrong and each is clearly quite extreme. Most managers are probably a blend of parts of each and their views will probably change depending on how things are going when you ask them.

The question therefore becomes if neither view is right, wrong or permanent, which view is more useful to us as managers who coach?

Theory Y would seem to offer the greatest scope for achieving improved results because of a concept known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. As we saw above, if we treat people as if Theory X were true they will tend to behave in a way which reinforces that belief. The same is true for Theory Y.

More on this next time.

About 

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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