Theory X and Theory Y (& Z): Employee Motivation Explained

Theory X and Theory YMost leaders and managers are aware of the importance of motivating their employees and creating an environment for them to perform at their best (Sennewald & Baillie, 2016).

Motivation is not straightforward; the motivational factors for each employee will not be the same across the entire organization (Sennewald & Baillie, 2016; Ryan & Deci, 2018).

Douglas McGregor’s (1960) Theory X and Theory Y challenged the long-standing autocratic approach to leadership, offering several important insights into motivating and leading more effectively (Pearson, 2020).

In this article, we dig deeper into McGregor’s approach and explore its potential to improve individual and organizational engagement and performance.

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A Brief History of McGregor’s Motivation Theory

Organizations have long recognized that to be competitive, they must create an environment that inspires and drives staff to be their best, for themselves and the performance of their business (Sennewald & Baillie, 2016).

When MIT professor Douglas McGregor (1960) wrote The Human Side of Enterprise, he split corporate thinking into two camps. His Theory X and Theory Y recognized the importance of influence in managerial leadership (MIT Sloan School of Management, n.d.).

As a result, his approach offered several valuable insights into workplace motivation by challenging our assumptions about human nature and behavior (McGregor, 1960).

According to McGregor’s (1960) model, leaders typically believe one of the following (Villoria, 2022; Pearson, 2020):

  • Theory X
    A more traditional, autocratic style of leadership, direction, and control that assumes humans typically dislike work and must be “coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort” (Pearson, 2020, p. 84)
  • Theory Y
    Recognizes that as humans, under the proper conditions, we accept and seek out responsibility and are ready and willing to engage our imagination, ingenuity, and creativity. The modern workplace often fails to create an environment that fully uses our potential.

McGregor’s Theory Y became a vital alternative to the established view “at a time when labor-management relations were becoming more adversarial,” recognizing “that there was another way to view workers and leadership” (MIT Sloan School of Management, n.d., para. 7).

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The man behind the theory

Undoubtedly, McGregor’s early working years shaped how he viewed the needs of the workforce and recognized the importance of supportive (less overbearing) leadership (MIT Sloan School of Management, n.d.).

Starting in high school, McGregor worked at the family-run McGregor Institute, which offered temporary lodgings to transient workers, and even played piano during the church services they held.

He subsequently enrolled in the psychology department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He later dropped out to begin working at a gas station as a pump attendant in Buffalo, New York, before being promoted to regional gas station manager (MIT Sloan School of Management, n.d.).

He later returned to education, completing his degree in 1932 while managing the McGregor Institute and still finding time to run the soup kitchen for the unemployed. He then moved to Harvard University, achieving his MA and PhD in psychology before setting up the Industrial Relations Section at MIT.

He ultimately rose to professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management (n.d.).

Following the publication of The Human Side of Enterprise, McGregor (1960) became known as the proponent of Theory Y, yet continued to urge choice. Managers should “reflect on their own assumptions and come to their own conclusion” (MIT Sloan School of Management n.d., para. 11).

Diving Deep Into Theory X

positive-punishmentAccording to McGregor (1960), both Theory X and Theory Y are self-fulfilling, which means that an organization’s management style influences the behavior of its employees (Pearson, 2020).

Theory X — the more traditional view of direction and control — assumes that, where possible, humans avoid work and responsibility. As such, they not only need but also want to be directed.

If true, organizational objectives are only achievable in response to adequate control and appropriate punishment (Pearson, 2020).

It’s important because a manager’s perspective and attitude are self-fulfilling. Assuming employees will get away with the least effort possible means they are more likely to do just that. The Golem effect, as it is known, is seen in the workplace, education, and elsewhere (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

The following are three foundational assumptions upon which theory X rests (Pearson, 2020):

  1. Humans inherently dislike work and will avoid it whenever and wherever they can.
  2. “People must be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the attainment of organizational objectives” (Pearson, 2020, p. 109).
  3. Workers wish to be directed, as they have limited ambition and choose security over responsibility.

A leader with such assumptions prefers the autocratic style rather than nurturing, often ignoring their employees’ psychological safety (Prottas & Nummelin, 2018).

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Taking a Closer Look at Theory Y

In contrast to the autocratic approach of Theory X, Theory Y encourages management to be more supportive of their employees (Pearson, 2020).

Theory Y assumes that employees want to work and will engage their imagination, determination, and creativity, as well as be self-directed in pursuing their personal and organizational goals (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

As such, it rests upon the following six assumptions (Pearson, 2020):

  1. Humans do not inherently dislike work; instead, it is natural, like play and rest.
  2. We characteristically engage in self-direction and self-control to reach our goals, rather than needing external coercion and threat of punishment.
  3. Ego satisfaction and self-fulfillment are, in themselves, rewarding.
  4. We seek (rather than shirk) responsibility when the conditions are right.
  5. Generally, humans display a “relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in seeking to solve an organizational problem” (Pearson, 2020, p. 110).
  6. Our modern working environment leaves a great deal of the average person’s potential untapped.

Therefore, according to McGregor, Theory Y “emphasizes the average person’s intrinsic interest in his work, his desire to be self-directing and to seek responsibility, and his capacity to be creative in solving business problems” (Morse & Lorsch, 1970, para. 4).

Theory X and Theory Y: Examples in Practice

Mental WellbeingFor a long time, organizational leadership adopted a Theory X approach, handing targets down from up high and expecting employees to hit their performance goals.

Over the years, more open-book, Theory Y-driven companies have engaged with their teams, asking questions such as (Fotsch & Case, 2017):

How could the company be more profitable?
What opportunities does the staff have for improvement?

When staff members are treated like business owners, they behave accordingly (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

The multinational beverage company Coca-Cola employs more than 700,000 individuals around the world. For many years, Coca-Cola (like many other organizations of the time) practiced a Theory X approach to leadership. Management was hierarchical, and decision-making was centralized. The autocratic approach demanded that all employee work had to be closely scrutinized, resulting in reduced productivity and falling profits.

Coca-Cola needed to change. So, to test leadership approaches, they continued to use Theory X with its bottling investments division while introducing the new approach (Theory Y) in its corporate group (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

The results were dramatic. They found that adopting Theory Y, engaging employees more, and giving them ownership increased their performance and boosted commercial success (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

Applying Theory X and Theory Y in Management

Theory X and Theory Y are more than leadership concepts. They have real-world applications within corporate structures (Pearson, 2020).

We should note that Theory X can be valuable for leadership in large organizations, mainly where tasks are short, repetitive, clearly defined, and do not require too much decision-making. Employee skills may be limited, but actions can be clearly documented (Indeed, 2023).

On the other hand, smaller organizations (or larger ones with less easily defined roles) can benefit from adopting Theory Y. Rules and procedures remain more flexible. Staff members are encouraged to take ownership of their work and rely on their discretion and expertise (Indeed, 2023).

In truth, Theory X and Theory Y represent two extremes. Most organizations will find a middle ground, as we see in the following pointers (Pearson, 2020):

How do we apply Theory X in the workplace?

  • Put in place a high level of structure.
  • Define and control every step performed by each employee.
  • Offer a detailed explanation of each role.
  • Limit decision-making in employees and provide short-term goals.
  • Capitalize on commonalities, encouraging strong bonds to improve productivity and efficiency.
  • Maintain tight deadlines, as most tasks are short in duration.
  • Offer regular positive feedback and acknowledge daily effort.

How do we apply Theory Y in the workplace?

  • Create a loose or flexible management structure appropriate to the roles and goals.
  • Provide staff with high autonomy.
  • Encourage individualism and creativity, particularly in hard-to-define tasks.
  • Treat staff as experts. Allow them to choose how and when they perform tasks.
  • Encourage individualism, but support teamwork.
  • Be patient, as tasks are often longer, yet show encouragement and support.

Theory Z: Combining Eastern & Western Management Approaches

Theory YTheory Z is based on the idea that combining best practices from both Eastern (Japanese in particular) and Western management approaches can lead to optimal organizational performance (Barkema et al., 2015).

William Ouchi proposed Theory Z in his 1981 leadership book Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge. While many at the time thought of Theory Z as a sequel to Theory X and Theory Y, it was dramatically different (Barney, 2004).

The crucial difference was that “Theory Z changed the unit of analysis from the individual to the system within which an individual operated” (Barney, 2004, p. 106). It was a sociological approach.

America’s realization that Japanese automakers were offering more affordable, higher-quality vehicles than Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler in the early 1980s contributed to Theory Z’s uptake (Barney, 2004).

The new style included human resources practices that led to stable, long-term employment and group-based reward systems. It also considered employee beliefs, values, and needs (Barney, 2004).

Finding the Right Balance Between Theory X and Y (& Z)

There is no perfect leadership approach to motivating staff (Pearson, 2020).

Theory X uses a more authoritarian style that can demotivate employees and lead to resistance, while Theory Y recognizes staff (when given the proper conditions) as self-motivated. And yet, the appropriateness of leadership style depends on the organization and its tasks (Pearson, 2020).

Theory Z motivates employees by considering their needs, such as offering stable employment, emphasizing the importance of the quality of employee performance rather than solely quantity, and offering appropriate rewards (Barney, 2004).

To find the right balance between Theories X, Y, and Z, tailor and personalize the leadership approach (Pearson, 2020; Barney, 2004).

  • Employees’ needs and personalities – Personalize the approach to the individuals and the tasks.
  • Degree of participation – Understand how much involvement in decision-making is appropriate.
  • Goals and performance metrics – Consider whether the goals are short- or long-term and how progress will be measured.
  • Need, trust, and commitment – In all organizations, it is vital to emphasize long-term employment and build two-way loyalty between the organization and its staff.
  • Readiness to shift – A flexible approach to management allows for responsiveness to business needs, team dynamics, and external factors.

Raising expectations, boosting motivation, and securing commitment will result in better results and lives (Fotsch & Case, 2017).

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We have many resources available for HR professionals, coaches, or strategists working with leaders and their staff that support their motivation and leadership skills.

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  • Setting SMART+R Goals
    Helping clients set and work toward specific, clear, and measurable goals is energizing and motivating.
  • Why Do You Do What You Do?
    Emotional awareness is vital for improving communication between leaders and employees.
  • Workplace Strength Cards
    Understanding strengths can dramatically improve individual and team engagement, motivation, and performance.
  • Workplace Mindfulness
    Mindfulness can help individuals deal better with the stress in their lives and roles.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Workplace Comfort Zone Analysis

In this exercise, clients are invited to reflect on their current job and decide whether they are within or outside their comfort zone on a scale known as the comfort continuum.

Assessments involve scoring several questions, including:

When was the last time you tried something new at work?
How much are you learning new things at work right now?
To what extent do you feel you are developing your skills and/or knowledge at work?
To what extent does your work feel repetitive and/or monotonous?
When was the last time you took a risk at work?
Do you ever feel like it is time for a change? If so, what would you like to change?

The answers provide input for goal setting and achievement actions.

  • Using Guided Imagery to Envision Organizational Success

This exercise supports leaders in drafting their vision story through guided imagery. The process can stimulate positive emotions, enhance wellbeing, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve motivation.

    • Step one – The individual or group is introduced to guided imagery and why it is so valuable.
    • Step two – They are encouraged to relax before being walked through a guided imagery session. For instance:

Imagine yourself existing in this ideal future. What does your organization look like? How has it changed? What role are you playing? Take a moment to see the details.

    • Step three – Individuals craft a vivid vision story before distilling it into something more concrete and actionable: a breakthrough statement.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop positive leadership skills, check out this collection of 17 validated positive leadership exercises. Use them to equip leaders with the skills needed to cultivate a culture of positivity and resilience.

A Take-Home Message

There are many approaches to leadership. Primarily, they focus on the need to engage with, connect to, and motivate staff to work toward individual, team, and corporate goals.

Douglas McGregor (1960) introduced Theory X and Theory Y to illuminate two extremes in management styles.

Theory X is often considered more traditional and can be described as autocratic. The assumption is that employees are unmotivated and will fail to perform unless controlled, coerced, and even punished.

Theory Y is radically different. Here, the leader believes that staff are inherently motivated to do a good job and, with the right circumstances, can deliver on realistic and shared goals.

McGregor recognized that most leadership teams sit somewhere on a continuum between Theory X and Theory Y. While neither is 100% appropriate all the time, most organizations would benefit from adopting more Theory X assumptions.

After all, even workers performing relatively unskilled tasks will be more motivated and energized if they control how they conduct their work, particularly if they focus on ensuring quality and performance.

Theory Z brings other considerations, combining best practices from Eastern and Western management approaches. It recognizes the importance of considering the needs of the employees and fostering motivation through group-based rewards and job security.

Ultimately, Theories X, Y, and Z offer helpful lenses through which coaches, leaders, and employees can gain insight when examining their organization’s management style. A fair and actionable assessment can lead to positive changes that improve the employees’ and business’s health and wellbeing.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free.

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  • Barney, J. B. (2004). William Ouchi’s Theory Z: How American business can meet the Japanese challenge. The Academy of Management Executive, 18(4), 106–107.
  • Fotsch, B., & Case, J. (2017, July 11). The challenge of being a theory Y manager. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/ 2017/07/11/the-challenge-of-theory-y/
  • Indeed. (2023, January 9). McGregor’s Theory X and Y: What they are and how to apply. https://uk.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/mcgregor-theory-x-and-y
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  • Morse, J., & Lorsch, J. W. (1970 May). Beyond theory Y. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1970/05/beyond-theory-y
  • Pearson, G. (2020). Remaking the real economy. Policy Press.
  • Prottas, D. J., & Nummelin, M. R. (2018). Theory X/Y in the health care setting: Employee perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. The Health Care Manager, 37(2), 109–117.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
  • Sennewald, C. A. & Baillie, C. (2016). Effective security management (6th ed.). Elsevier.
  • Villoria, M. (2022). Contingency theory of leadership. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Global encyclopedia of public administration, public policy, and governance. Springer.

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