At a glance
In the 1960s, MIT Sloan School of Management social psychologist Douglas McGregor developed a simple theory of motivation.
That theory says that every manager has a personal view about what motivates people, and these views affect what managers do and how they behave.
Their management style, in other words, can be influenced by assumptions.
Some managers assume that people are lazy, irresponsible, have little to contribute and are motivated by rewards or punishments.
These are the theory X managers – those who are likely to limit the scope of contribution from their people, rely on explicit control and close supervision, and find their colleagues untrustworthy.
Theory Y managers, on the other hand, believe that most people want to contribute, participate and strive to achieve. They have a positive attitude and believe colleagues can control and direct themselves, and make valuable intellectual contributions.
McGregor thought that theory X managers were more prevalent in the 1950s, despite the fact that theory Y offers a more accurate reflection of human nature.
In either case, the personal views that managers form about employees can have a significant impact on both the culture and climate in an organisation or work group.
Managers’ assumptions – even when unfounded – can also become self-fulfilled prophecies, as people tend to fulfil the expectations of others.
If a manager’s assumptions about employees are closer to theory X, then that manager is likely to have lower expectations of people and consequently will not allow them to participate in key decisions.
The overall effect is to limit employee potential, and this is likely to lead to lower levels of performance.
However, if a manager’s assumptions are more in line with theory Y, they are likely to trust and empower people, allowing them to contribute to the workplace in a meaningful way.
The flow-on effects of making assumptions
What do theories X and Y have to do with ethics?
Treating people with dignity and respect is a duty we owe to everyone, despite their colour, gender, age or standing in the workplace hierarchy.
Assumptions about colleagues are going to affect not only a manager’s own behaviour, but also the behaviour of everyone in their team.
Depending on whether they fall in the theory X or theory Y camp, a manager’s attitudes and personal views may also impact an employee’s general wellbeing, as well as that person’s ability to contribute and flourish in the work environment.
It is therefore prudent to not only look at the attitudes of our people toward work and the organisation, but also our own attitudes.
Let’s remember that we share some responsibility for our colleagues’ performance, as it may be an indication of our attitudes and expectations rather than their capabilities.