Theory X and Theory Y: Theories of employee Motivation
December 24, 2008

Theory X and Theory Y pertain to employee motivation and have been used in human resource management, organizational behavior analysis, and organizational development.  

Theory X and Theory Y : Theories of employee Motivation

Theory X and Theory Y, created and developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s, pertain to employee motivation and have been used in human resource management, organizational behavior analysis, and organizational development. They describe two very different attitudes towards workforce motivation. McGregor felt that companies followed either one of these approaches.

Description of Theory X

In this theory management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can. Because of this, workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of control put in place. A hierarchical structure is needed, with narrow span of control at each level, for effective management. According to this theory employees will show little ambition without an enticing incentive program and will avoid responsibility whenever they can.

The managers influenced by Theory X believe that everything must end in blaming someone. They think most employees are only out for themselves and their sole interest in the job is to earn money. They tend to blame employees in most situations, without questioning the systems, policy, or lack of training which could be the real cause of failures.

Managers that subscribe to Theory X tend to take a rather pessimistic view of their employees. A Theory X manager believes that it is the manager’s job to structure the work and energize the employee. The result of this line of thought is that Theory X managers naturally adopt a more authoritarian style based on the threat of punishment. Critics believe that a Theory X manager could be an impediment to employee morale & productivity.

Description of Theory Y

Management influenced by this theory assumes that employees are ambitious, self-motivated, anxious to accept greater responsibility and exercise self-control, self-direction, autonomy and empowerment. Management believes that employees enjoy their work. They also believe that, given a chance, employees have the desire to be creative at their work place and become forward looking. There is a chance for greater productivity by giving employees the freedom to perform to the best of their abilities, without being bogged down by rules.

A Theory Y manager believes that, given the right conditions, most people will want to do well at work and that there is a pool of unused creativity in the workforce. They believe that the satisfaction of doing a good job is a strong motivation in itself. A Theory Y manager will try to remove the barriers that prevent workers from fully actualizing themselves .

Many people interpret Theory Y as a positive set of assumptions about workers. A close reading of The Human Side of Enterprise reveals that McGregor simply argues for managers to be open to a more positive view of workers and the possibilities that create enthusiasm.


Though these theories are very basic in nature, they provide a platform for future generations of management theorists and practitioners to understand the changing dynamics of human behavior. Taken too literally, Theories X and Y seem to represent unrealistic extremes. Most employees (including managers) fall somewhere in between these poles. Recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model, yet McGregor’s X-Y Theories remain guiding principles to the management to evolve processes which help in organizational development. A mix of practices which ensure a healthy blend of systems and the freedom to perform at the work place is likely to motivate the employees more. This mix of practices calls for induction of technology into HR. How we can practice Talent Management in all types of organizations will indicate how well we have understood & deployed these theories X and Y in our real time environment.

About author

Dr Shailesh Thaker

Dr. Shailesh Thaker is a world-renowned management thinker and trainer on organizational behavior and development. He is the CLO of Knowledge Plus Inc., a highly reputed training firm based in Ahmedabad, India, helping organizations to achieve international benchmarks in management practices.

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