McGregor's theory of leadership

Written by lalla scotter
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McGregor's theory of leadership
Theories X and Y are based on different beliefs about what motivates people. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Douglas McGregor was an American social psychologist based at MIT. In 1960 he published his famous X-Y theory in a book, "The Human Side of Enterprise." Although more recent research and practice have suggested that the theory is simplistic and overly rigid, it remains a basic principle of management and organisational development. McGregor suggested that a manager's perceptions of what motivates his team will affect the way he himself behaves. Theory X and theory Y are best viewed as extremes in a spectrum of management beliefs and behaviours, with most managers falling somewhere in the middle.


Theory X managers assume that people are basically lazy and dislike work. They want to be told what to do and to avoid responsibility. They are unambitious and prize security above all else. In contrast, theory Y managers believe that it is natural to make an effort in work. People are happy to accept responsibility and, in fact, will often seek it.

Management style

Managers develop different styles to respond to their beliefs about what is motivating their staff. Theory X managers generally adopt an authoritarian, or "command and control" style, in which people have to be told what to do and made to work. In theory Y, the management style is participative and democratic. Managers involve their teams in decision-making, and will often ask for their ideas.

Types of work

McGregor's research revealed that organisations in which management expectations tended towards theory X usually had employees with specialised and often repetitive work. In theory Y organisations, the work was more likely to be based around wider areas of skill or knowledge. Employees in these types of organisations were encouraged to develop expertise and make suggestions for improvements.

Controls and rewards

Managers and organisations with theory X tendencies have explicit methods of control, with sanctions and rewards being linked clearly with performance. Performance appraisal systems are usually linked directly to pay awards. Organisations based on theory Y usually have regular appraisals, but their purpose is generally explained to be to identify development needs. Employees are likely to be involved with setting their own objectives, and remuneration is less directly linked with the appraisal system.

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