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Management Styles – Theory X And Theory Y

Basic human needs are the fundamental aspects of human nature. Values, beliefs, and customs differ from country to country and group to group, but all people have similar needs. This is more relevant in the workplace now than ever before, especially when management style is being scrutinised, and Leadership is becoming the preferred method of empowering employees, clients, colleagues and peers. In this post, we will look at what a few of the expert Theorists have researched over the last century, and surmise how relevant some of these explorations are today.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) felt that basic human needs were arranged in a hierarchical order, originally shown as a 5 step pyramid. He based his theory on healthy, creative people who used all their talents, potential, and capabilities. Basic needs are physiological, such as food, water, and sleep; and psychological, such as affection, security, and self esteem. These basic needs are also called deficiency needs because if they are not met by an individual, then that person will strive to make up the deficiency.

The higher needs are called meta needs or growth needs. These include justice, goodness, beauty, order, unity, etc. Basic needs take priority over these growth needs. People who lack food or water cannot attend to justice or beauty. A need higher in the hierarchy will become a motive of behaviour as long as the needs below it have been satisfied. Unsatisfied lower needs will dominate unsatisfied higher needs and must be satisfied before the person can climb up the hierarchy.

Related: Managing To Get The Very Best From Your People

Herzberg’s Hygiene and Motivational Factors

Frederick Herzberg (1923-2000) developed a list of factors that are closely based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, except it is more closely related to work:

Hygiene or Dissatisfiers – Working conditions

  • Policies and administrative practices
  • Salary and Benefits
  • Supervision
  • Status
  • Job security
  • Fellow workers
  • Personal life

Motivators or Satisfiers –  Recognition

  • Achievement
  • Advancement
  • Growth
  • Responsibility
  • Job challenge

Hygiene factors (dissatisfiers) must be present in the job before the motivators (satisfiers) can be used to stimulate that person. That is, you cannot use Motivators until all the Hygiene factors are met. Herzberg’s needs are specifically job related and reflect some of the distinct things that people want from their work as opposed to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which reflect all the needs in a person’s life. Building on this model, Herzberg coined the term  job enrichment to describe the process of redesigning work in order to build in Motivators.

Related: Do Business Owners Know What Makes For A Good Manager?

McGregor’s Management Styles – Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor (1906-1964) developed a philosophical view of humankind with his Theory X and Theory Y. These are two opposing perceptions about how people view human behaviour at work and organisational life.

Theory X

  • People have an inherent dislike for work and will avoid it whenever possible
  • People must be coerced, controlled, directed, or threatened with punishment in order to get them to achieve the organisational objectives
  • People prefer to be directed, do not want responsibility, and have little or no ambition
  • People seek security above all else

With Theory X assumptions, management’s role is to coerce and control employees.

Theory Y

  • Work is as natural as play and rest
  • People will exercise self-direction if they are committed to the objectives
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement
  • People learn to accept and seek responsibility
  • Creativity, ingenuity, and imagination are widely distributed among the population. People are capable of using these abilities to solve an organisational problem
  • People have potential

With Theory Y assumptions, management’s role is to develop the potential in employees and help them to release that potential towards common goals.

Related: Managing your Stress in the Workplace

So which Management style do you prefer?

Theory X is the view that traditional management has taken towards the workforce. Many organisations are now taking the enlightened view of theory Y. A boss can be viewed as taking the theory X approach, while a leader takes the theory Y approach. With the onslaught of B2B social media, and the break down of formal business approach, business is also being conducted more around Theory Y than old school Theory X.

Which Management style have you worked under in the past? Does that influence how you run your business today, and more importantly how you manage your employees?

Image: “Business man moving chess figure with team behind – strategy or leadership concept/Shutterstock


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Elaine Rogers is a Business Trainer, Coach and Writer. She takes pain away. She helps soothe the rough and tumble of running a business through education, information and coaching. And a bit of entertainment. Elaine hangs out at The Smart Train She provides online training and coaching solutions in the areas of MS Office Skills, Business Skills, and Soft Skills. She also provides exclusive content for her ever growing email list.

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  • Hi Elaine, welcome back and this is a really interesting piece. I was particularly interesting in your last point, that social media is encouraging managers to conduct business around Theory Y rather than old school Theory X. This resonates strongly with me, can I suggest it deserves a follow up post?  

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  • A need higher in the hierarchy will become a motive of behaviour as long as the needs below it have been satisfied. Unsatisfied lower needs will dominate unsatisfied higher needs and must be satisfied before the person can climb up the hierarchy.

  • Thanks Niall, I am refreshed and ready for that follow up post. I would love some feedback in the comments here to give me some guidance as to the content of the follow up.

    Perhaps something around our attitude towards conducting ourselves both online and offline as employers/managers? As a consequence of traceability and transparency (with the constant “threat” of exposure if we do not conduct ourselves properly).

    And how our recent behavioural changes have or have not been influenced by the more recent theorists/experts in the areas of SM and SN?

  • My recommendation is that you read works by the pioneer of goal setting theory, Edwin A. Locke, e.g., Postmodernism and Management: Pros, Cons and the Alternative and Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior.

  • RE: Herzberg’s dissatisfiers, I’m not sure that job security, at least in this day and age, is ever a need  that will be satisfied for an individual, before he/she is required to meet job challenges imposed by supervisors. When the economy takes a downturn, fear reigns, and “Theory X” managers flourish. They are what’s killing the workforce.

  • Thanks for the recommendations 🙂 always a good topic to read about

  • I agree that there is nothing like a recession to bring out the ugly X in management style, all based on fear as you say.

    Fortunately, many of the workers who find themselves out of work, or suffering under the hands of an X manager, become entrepreneurs, and succeed. By process of elimination, entrepreneurs find themselves on the correct journey, rather than staying in a job out of fear, or because times are too good to leave.

    The beauty about recessions (esp here in Ireland) is that they create a new breed of entrepreneurs and creativity, networking becomes enjoyable again (relationship building) and theory Y in business flourishes.

    Of course, this is not always the case, and I am happy to report, this is what I am currently experiencing in Ireland 🙂

    Great points Heather, and thanks for sharing your insights

  • It sounds as if you and I are making similar discoveries! Many thanks for your observations and input. I am finding that I am enjoying business much better now that I have adopted this attitude and, perhaps not surprisingly, I find I am attracting exactly the kind of work I want!

    Good to meet you, Kevin.


  • Peaceway

    it depends on the workers attitude to work. if they behave matured, you can apply Theory Y, but if otherwise, i think theory X would be better.

  • Hi James & welcome to Tweak Your Biz. My two brothers are both teachers so I will be passing on this post as I’m sure they will find it useful.

  • Emad Rahim

    What is the #1 app that every teacher should have for teaching their students? Both high school and college level.

  • Karen Mahon

    Hi James- Wanted to make sure that you’re aware of our new service, Balefire Labs, for helping teachers sand parents find the best instructional apps for their kids. I started the business about 6 months ago because I was so frustrated with the process of finding high-quality and truly educational apps. Hope you’ll check us out and thanks!

  • best

    Cuz Theory ‘Y’ is always better 😀 😀 m/

  • Robert Johanesen

    Theory X leadership unfortunately is more prevalent today than it was in the early 1900’s. Outsourcing, very low wages, hiring only part time workers to avoid paying benefits and the breakup of the unions (Ronald Regan) are all part and parcel to “Theory X” managers flourishing. We have PHD”s being supervised by GED’s. As a society we need to only buy American made products and support our unions. It’s a beginning to getting jobs back here and putting the “Theory X” boot in the ass leadership back into the history books

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