Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor (1906-1964) as a social psychologist examined managerial action and its built in assumptions about human behaviour.

Theory X is the traditional approach to control in organisations.

The average human being dislikes work and will avoid it if possible. The response of management is to promote incentive schemes and a fair day's work, and denounce restricting output in favour of productivity.
People need to be directed, coerced, controlled and threatened with punishment in order to get them to put in adequate effort.
People actually prefer to be directed by management according to Theory X because of the avoidance of responsibility, lack of ambition and a basic need for security.

Theory X has been based on certain human behaviour in organisations. Yet other behaviour is not based on these assumptions. This has led to Theory Y where integration replaces control and direction.

Theory Y is the progressive alternative:

People give effort into work as naturally as they do in play or rest. Work is not disliked as such, but rather it can offer either satisfaction or punishment.
Self direction and self control are shown towards objectives to which the individual is committed and this is an alternative to external control (and so is not the only means of control).
The best reward to gain commitment is satisfying the individual´s self actualising needs. This can be directed towards organisational objectives.
The average human being not only accepts but to seeks responsibility under proper conditions.
More people could contribute creatively to solving organisational problems than actually do.
The potentialities of the average person are not fully used.

McGregor states that there will be conflict between staff and line as long as the staff departments are used by top management to control the line (Theory X). They have been involved in carrying out performance appraisals, salaries and promotions, participation and staff-line relationships. Rather he sees (with Theory Y) staff departments offering professional help to all levels of management.

There is a need for supportative relationships. Objectives must become meaningful for the individual in a job that is satisfying.


Pugh, D. S., Hickson, D. J., Hinings, C. R. (eds.) (1971), Writers on Organizations, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 146-151 (sections).

Refers to:

McGregor, D. (1961), The Human Side of Enterprise, McGrawHill.

McGregor, D. (1966), Leadership and Motivation, MIT Press.

McGregor, D. (1967), The Professional Manager, McGrawHill.