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Stairs-to-anspirition-4-clSorry, this is not about two secret agents saving the world, nor is it about your chromosome make up. It’s about the old debate on Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

Developed back in the 1960s,

the theory is still taught in business schools and features prominently in management literature – along with other management theories that are still relevant today, such as Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), David McClelland’s Acquired-Needs Theory (1953), Frederick Herzberg’s Two-factor Theory (1959) and Equity Theory by John Stacy Adams (1963).

Perhaps because human behaviour is fundamentally unchanging, the insights and applications are interwoven into other work areas such as marketing, sales, advertising, communications, organisational development, consumer behaviour and organisational behaviour.

Coming back to the debate,
the theory posits that workers in organizations classified as Theory X are inherently lazy and averse to work. Management ‘enforces’ its will on employees through a culture of compliance, strong supervision and punitive measures to achieve its objectives and targets. Not surprisingly, Theory X organisations are frowned upon. On the other hand, Theory Y organizations constitute ambitious, self-motivated and goal-oriented employees. Management appeals to their inherent joy of self-direction while aligning them to corporate goals.

Thus homemakers managing domestic help might feel a Theory X attitude to be wholly appropriate in their situation, while parents might need to alternate between the two styles to get the best out of their children.

In essence, as employees, we could be classified as X or Y, while the attitude of a manager could be the opposite, raising the potential for conflict. This conflict, to a large extent, also depends on the circumstances we find ourselves in and whether the task at hand appeals to us or not.

Managers will probably find that workers span the entire spectrum of descriptors, while employees would feel the same about their bosses. At the same time, we would all like to think of ourselves as being Theory Y professionals while others might see us as being Theory X.

The questions I leave you with are: Into which category do our managers classify us, and what motivational theory is being applied to get us to perform?

Further reading: The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor (1960, McGraw-Hill).

– Leon Menezes

The writer is a senior HR practitioner, executive coach and professional writer.

First published in the Careers Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on February 24, 2013.