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Mar 21, 2014

In his book, The Human Side of Enterprise published in 1960, MIT business professor Douglas McGregor proposed two schools of thought on employee motivation.

  • Theory X is the belief that employees are motivated by pay and they need supervision to make sure they get their work done.
  • Theory Y is the opposite: employees are motivated by the work itself, finding autonomy, meaning, and gaining a sense of accomplishment from the work.

Motivated by the work, or by the supervision?

Research on McGregor’s theory produced some interesting findings on how employee perceptions are influenced by their manager’s belief in either theory. Those that worked for a manager that believed in Theory X tended to need more supervision, while those who worked for a manager that believed in Theory Y were motivated by the work and their love of the job.

While we’ve learned a good deal about motivation since McGregor came up with this concept back in the 60s, the basic premise still holds true: The manager’s beliefs influenced his or her behaviors which, in turn, influenced the employee’s beliefs. The result is that employees act the way they are expected to act and become the kind of worker that their manager expects them to be.

An anonymous comment from a recent employee engagement survey we conducted for one of our clients describes the impact of a Theory Y management style:

I dislike the micromanagement from my management team. I would prefer to be evaluated based on production rather than how well I fill out software programs. Many of the tasks we are asked to do are redundant and I don’t see the practical purpose for them.”

Creating an environment that promotes success

Compare that response to some comments from employees that work in more of a Theory Y environment at the same company:

  • The work is challenging, exciting, and meaningful. Never ever, ever bored!”
  • “My job has a real meaning now, helping customers around the world. Having the values systems helps me stay focused to try to do my job better everyday.”

Consider the impact these management styles have on employee engagement in the workplace.

Leaders that believe in the potential of their employees will create an environment that promotes their success and development. Employees, in turn, will step up to the challenge and perform to their potential.

So which type of manager are you? Which type of manager do you work for? Do you prefer to have more structure and supervision or are you motivated by having more autonomy and accountability?

This was originally published on the DecisionWise blog.