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Week 36, 2021 — Issue #168

Theories X, Y, and Z: Control, Contribute, or Cooperate

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Each week: three ideas on the future of work. This week: three theories on workplace motivation.

I’ve been reading Douglas McGregor’s 1960 The Human Side of Enterprise. It’s about time, to be honest. It’s a classic in organizational design and development circles. And it’s easy to see why. McGregor was ahead of his time. Way, way ahead.

The Human Side of Enterprise covers a lot of ground. But its theoretical foundation rests upon something McGregor calls Theory X and Theory Y — two sets of assumptions about workplace motivation. And that’s what I want to cover today. That, and a Theory-Z extension proposed in the 1980s.

Let’s dig in.

1. Control

Theory X holds that people dislike work and will go to great lengths to avoid it. To get work done, management must command and exert control. The focus is on extrinsic motivators of the carrots and sticks variety. And when a Theory-X manager delegates work, s/he will provide frequent guidance and follow-ups to make sure expectations are met in terms of quality and time. The end result: organizations characterized by bureaucracy and micromanagement.

2. Contribution

Theory Y holds that people want to work because work is a source of meaning and fulfillment. To get work done, management should enable and facilitate. The focus is on intrinsic motivators such as contribution, recognition, and self-actualization. And when a Theory-Y manager delegates work, it’ll be in the form of a high-level objective or target; s/he will trust the delegate to figure the rest out for themselves. The end result: organizations that promote individuality and self-management.

3. Cooperation

Theory Z holds that people want to work because work provides stability and a sense of identity. To get work done, management should nurture and develop. The focus is on intrinsic motivators like honor and mastery. And when a Theory-Z manager delegates work, s/he will rely on high-level objectives — just like Theory Y. But s/he will stay engaged — not in an effort to exert control (like Theory X), but in order to support and build the relationship. The end result: organizations that promote cooperation and loyalty.

McGregor projected into Theory X all the “non-productive” assumptions about workplace motivation that he could observe in 1960s America — assumptions that he knew no person would actually admit to holding but the ramification of which were readily observable all the same.

Theory Y was McGregor’s solution — the antidote to the drudgery of Theory X. And in it, we find the seeds for the future-of-work conversation we’re having 80 years later. I find that sobering. We’ve made progress, sure. But Theory X is arguably still the norm in organizations around the world.

Few would disagree with McGregor in saying that Theory Y appears superior to Theory X. But let’s not forget that is based on a decidedly Western ideal — the individualistic bent of which may or may not translate well into other cultures… which is why we now have Theory Z.

Theory Z is an extension of McGregor’s work proposed by William Ouchi — a Japanese-American business professor who spent time studying the Lean Manufacturing movement in Japan in the 1980s. Some have consequently described Theory Z as the Asian equivalent to Theory Y.

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: Make it matter.

PS. There are other versions of Theory Z as well — most notably Abraham Maslow’s (yes, that guy) version that focuses on self-transcendence.

WorkMatters is a weekly newsletter on and about the future of work. It’s written and curated by Andreas Holmer.

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Andreas Holmer

Andreas Holmer

Designer, reader, writer. Sensemaker. Management thinker. CEO at MAQE — a digital consulting firm in Bangkok, Thailand.

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