Posted by: kenwbudd | April 19, 2010

Theory U and Theory T

Theory U and Theory T

Management theory books and disaster films have something in common. Both confront the prospect of the near-total destruction of life as we know it. In the movies, the hero invariably realizes what must be done and saves the world just before the credits roll. In management books, the chosen manager masters the correct theory just in time to avert business catastrophe. On screen, happy endings are unremarkable — it’s just entertainment, after all. But in the real world, real companies make real decisions based on the theories authors propose in their management books. Why should one assume that things always end well?

This question about happy endings comes to mind on the 50th anniversary of one of the most storied contributions to the management literature, Douglas McGregor’s famous distinction between Theory X and Theory Y. In his hugely influential 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise (McGraw-Hill), McGregor made the simple yet powerful observation that managerial practice often expresses some very deep assumptions about the nature of human beings: Two competing theories about human nature, he claimed, dominate the managerial thought–world.

Theory X says that the average human being is lazy and self-centered, lacks ambition, dislikes change, and longs to be told what to do. The corresponding managerial approach emphasizes total control. Employee motivation, it says, is all about the fear and the pain. Theory Y maintains that human beings are active rather than passive shapers of themselves and of their environment. They long to grow and assume responsibility. The best way to manage them, then, is to manage as little as possible. Give them water and let them bloom, say the Y-types.

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