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Douglas McGregor will help you think differently about human behavior (and other things)

Every management act in our organizations stems from a core belief about human nature.

Can workers in your organization be trusted to do the work that needs to be done? Are they ambitious? Do they seek responsibility? Do they have ideas about how to improve things? Do they generally enjoy the idea of working?

What about yourself?

Of course, some (many?) of us will have to ask ourselves these questions apart from our current job because the conditions that surround us have a tendency to make our work environment trend toward the unbearable, which is exactly the point Douglas McGregor makes in his seminal book “The Human Side of Enterprise” where he introduces the concept of Theory X and Theory Y.

What McGregor argues is that if a worker is disengaging from the work it is as a result of how the organization is managed and not because of their human nature.

What’s sad and difficult and a very central reason why it’s difficult to work in so many organizations is that most of the organizations we work in rely on a Theory X approach when Theory X people don’t even exist naturally.

They’re created by the conditions in the organization. We’re all Theory Y people (mostly) working in Theory X organizations.

Workers are ambitious, will seek responsibility, can be trusted to do the required work, have ideas for how to improve things, enjoy the idea of working, among other positive behaviors, until an organization’s environment (and the prior organizations they’ve worked for) makes them feel otherwise.

Think of Theory X as a carrot-and-stick understanding of human nature: that workers need to be incentivized with rewards for good performance and punished when expectations are not met.

Theory Y is whatever is the opposite of that.

Theory Y embraces the idea that, as McGregor writes, “If employees are lazy, indifferent, unwilling to take responsibility, intransigent, uncreative, uncooperative, Theory Y implies that the causes lie in management’s methods of organization and control.”

He continues, “… when people respond to managerial decisions in undesired ways, the normal response is to blame them. It is their stupidity, or their cooperativeness, or their laziness which is seized on as the explanation of what happened, not management’s failure to select appropriate means for control.

“Theory X offers management an easy rationalization for ineffective organizational performance: It is due to the nature of the human resources [employees] with which we must work.”

Instead: “Theory Y … places the problems squarely in the lap of management.”

“Every managerial decision has behavioral consequences,” writes McGregor. “Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations, and hypotheses, that is to say—theory. Our assumptions are frequently implicit, sometimes quite unconscious, often conflicting; nevertheless, they determine our predictions that if we do a, b will occur. Theory and practice are inseparable.”

To connect the dots: If your theory of human nature is Theory X, you’re going to get Theory X behavior because of your Theory X methods.

To state the obvious: If your theory of human nature is Theory Y, you’re going to get Theory Y behavior because of your Theory Y methods.

What makes it oh-so-much-worse is that McGregor rightly calls us all out with the fact that very few of us have ever thought deeply about our assumptions! We’ve implicitly accepted things as they are and instead of challenging our fundamental theory of human behavior, we’re off to the next committee meeting to action plan boosting employee engagement.

Here it is plainly from me: if the work is engaging, employees will engage. If it isn’t, it’s much more difficult.

Here it is plainly from McGregor: “Many of our attempts to control behavior, far from representing selective adaptations, are in direct violation of human nature. They consist in trying to make people behave as we wish without concern for natural law.”

There is hope, of course: “Human behavior is predictable, but, as in physical science, accurate prediction hinges on the correctness of underlying theoretical assumptions.”

And it requires introspection: “Only as we examine and test our theoretical assumptions can we hope to make them more adequate, to remove inconsistencies, and thus to improve our ability to predict.”

Here is our task: “The real need is for new theory, changed assumptions, more understanding of the nature of human behavior in organizational settings.”

In other words: it’s to our collective benefit to move toward a Theory Y understanding of human nature, because, as McGregor writes, “These assumptions involve sharply different implications for managerial strategy than do those of Theory X. They are dynamic rather than static: They indicate the possibility of human growth and development; they stress the necessity for selective adaptation rather than for a single absolute form of control. They are not framed in terms of the least common denominator of the factory hand, but in terms of a resource which has substantial potentialities.”


Theory Y in McGregor’s words:

  1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
  2. Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.
  3. The average human being learns, under proper 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. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.

Theory X in McGregor’s words:

  1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.
  2. Because of this human characteristic of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.
  3. The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all.
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