Management Gurus: Douglas McGregor
In previous features on motivational gurus, we've looked at Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg. This week, we complete the three big names of the mid-20th century motivation movement with a look at the life and work of Douglas McGregor. Just as Maslow is known for his Hierarchy of Needs, and Herzberg for his hygiene-motivational theory, so McGregor is universally known for his Theory X and Theory Y assumptions about people. McGregor's theory was published in 1960 in his book, "The Human Side of Enterprise" but his ideas started a long time before as he was growing up in Detroit.
Douglas McGregor: Early Life Influences
Douglas McGregor was born in Detroit in 1906 just as it was starting to become the centre of the car-production industry in America. While still at school, McGregor worked in his uncle's McGregor Institute which provided temporary accommodation for around 100 transient workers. When depression hit the industry in the 1930's, the Institute became a hostel for the unemployed. McGregor organised mass soup kitchens and helped with the management of the centre. Soon after, McGregor went to Harvard to study psychology and after graduating took a position at the Industrial Relations section of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1947, he became President of the progressive Antioch College in Ohio where he combined his leadership of the college with his management work. After 6 years he returned to MIT where he wrote his most important works on the management of people. On his death in 1964, the Antioch college was named after him in honour of their most famous son.
Douglas McGregor: Theory X and Y
McGregor's ideas suggest that there are two fundamental approaches to managing people. The first, theory X, is an authoritarian approach which is characterised by the following assumptions. The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if they can. Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives. The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.
By contrast, the second approach, theory Y, is an enlightened approach which is characterised by the following assumptions. Effort in work is as natural as work and play. People will apply responsibility, self-control and self-direction to achieve organisational goals, without having to be controlled or threatened. Most people have the means to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity to solve workplace problems.
As a result, a typical theory X manager is autocratic, intolerant, distant, demanding, vengeful, bullying, results-driven and insecure. A typical theory Y manager is democratic, people-oriented, approachable, open-minded, and secure.
Douglas McGregor: the Legacy of Theory X and Theory Y
For many managers in the late 20th century, the idea that there was an alternative to the theory X approach to managing people was a bolt from the blue. It meant that there was a sound and acceptable basis for getting results through working with people rather than working against them. However, McGregor never suggested that one theory was better than the other. The decline of industrial-based workplaces in the West and their replacement by information-based workplaces favoured a wider support of theory Y approaches. Should we assume that theory X no longer has a role in today's enlighened workplaces, we have only to look at the stories of the collapse of the banking industry in 2008 to see that in some banks, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, theory X was well and truly alive and thriving.