McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor (1908–1964), a professor at MIT, used a human relations perspective to compare the assumptions leaders make about employees. He called them Theory X and Theory Y without any connotation of being “good or bad”. The nature of people has been expressed in two sets of assumptions developed by Douglas McGregor.

He believed that two basic kinds of managers exist. One type, the Theory X manager, has a negative view of employees and assumes that they are lazy, untrustworthy, and incapable of assuming responsibility. On the other hand, the Theory Y manager assumes that employees are not only trustworthy and capable of assuming responsibility, but also have high levels of motivation.

Assumptions of Theory X

  1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he or she can.
  2. People need to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment to get them to put forward adequate effort toward the organization’s ends.
  3. The average person prefers to be directed, wants to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, and wants security above all.

Assumptions of Theory Y

  1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as in play or rest—the typical human being does not inherently dislike work.
  2. External control and threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward a company’s goals. A person will exercise self-direction and self-control in the pursuit of the objective to which he is committed.
  3. The average person learns, under the right conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.
  4. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  5. The intellectual potential of most people is only partially utilized in most organizations.

These two sets of assumptions are fundamentally different theory x is pessimistic, static and rigid. Theory y is optimistic, dynamic and flexible with an emphasis on self-directions. There is little doubt that each set of assumption will affect managerial functions and activities of managers.

McGregor’ theories are useful for analysis as well as for the selection of an adequate intervention.


Adapted from D. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960


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