Theories of Motivation

Theories Of Motivation

For those who have not already come across these terms, Theory X and Theory Y are theories of human motivation, explained by Douglas McGregor in his 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise”. These two theories describe two contrasting models – or sets of assumptions – about workforce motivation.

“How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything – for better or for worse.”

~ Simon Sinek

Theory X

In Theory X, management assumes people are inherently lazy and dislike work. As a result of this, management believes that people need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of control developed. According to this theory, people will be disinclined to apply effort without extrinsic motivations (bonuses and the like) and will avoid responsibility whenever they can. Theory X managers often rely on the threat of punishment to gain compliance. A Theory X manager believes that his or her people do not really want to work, that they would rather avoid responsibility and that it is the manager’s job to structure the work and energize their people.

Theory Y

Under Theory Y, management assumes people may be ambitious, self-motivated and capable of exercising self-organisation. A Theory Y manager believes that, given the right conditions, most people want to do well at work. They believe that people find intrinsic motivation in the satisfaction of doing a good job.

Aside: Many people interpret Theory Y as a positive set of beliefs about people. 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 people, and to the possibilities that this perspective creates. See also: The Pygmalion Effect and the Golem Effect.

“I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

~ George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

The Relationship Between Theory X and Theory Y

For McGregor, Theory X and Y are not different extremes of the same spectrum, but rather two different, orthogonal dimensions.

Theory X, Theory Y and the Mindsets Of The Marshall Model

Theory X – and it’s counter part, Theory Y – are two of the key memes in the memeplexes of the Marshall Model. Analytic-minded organisations tend to be archetypes of Theory X, whereas synergistic-minded organisations tend to eschew Theory X in favour of Theory Y assumptions and beliefs. The following chart illustrates the distribution of Theory X and Theory Y over the four mindsets of the Marshall Model.



“The biggest barriers to strategic renewal are almost always top management’s unexamined beliefs.”

~ Gary Hamel

– Bob

Further Reading

The Human Side of Enterprise ~ Douglas McGregor

  1. Reblogged this on taherehbarati and commented:
    I found this article beautifully described how we are relational and how what we do/believe affects others, ourselves and our hopes/dreams…. Enjoy!

  2. dallsopp said:

    Hi Bob,

    I’m a bit puzzled by this: in what way are theory X and theory Y orthogonal rather than opposite? On your X-Y plot I note that there is nothing in the bottom left (believe in neither X nor Y) or the top right (believe in both). Everything lies on an (admittedly blurry) line. That seems to support the “spectrum” interpetation rather than the orthogonal one?

    • The plot attempts to illustrate that many e.g. Analytic organisations are a lot Theory X whilst simultaneously a little bit Theory Y, and vice versa for e.g. many Synergistic organisations.

      And also that almost all – but not every – Synergistic organisations are less Theory X than the least Theory X Analytic organisation.

      – Bob

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