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Classic Management Styles: Theories X and Y of Douglas McGregor
When Professor McGregor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management postulated his contrasting concepts of manager/ employee attitudes- which he defined as Theory X and Theory Y- behavior of managers toward employees was less nuanced than today. In the 1960s- managers directed workers- and workers responded. Management often exhibited an attitude that workers disliked their employment- were inherently lazy and would avoid work if possible.
Thus employees needed to be closely supervised- and management’s task was to develop control procedures and rules that left little to the imagination of the workers. The concept that workers could be motivated by sharing objectives and working with management to accomplish the goals of the department was not widely accepted.
McGregor defined a management attitude toward workers that discounted their commitment to work as Theory X. He defined a more optimistic attitude toward the aspirations of workers as Theory Y. His initial work was designed to identify the environment surrounding the management/worker relationship; it was not a doctrine of how management should interact with employees. Nevertheless- two management styles emerged.
Based on the assertion that workers would rather be doing something other than what their employer specifies- a manager whose style aligns with Theory X believes he or she must be highly directive and totally in control- leaving little room for workers to question management’s decisions regarding what needs to be accomplished or how the work should be completed. Furthermore- the consequences of not following the manager’s direction must be quick and compelling—in essence what World War II General MacArthur called his “hot stove” approach to discipline (no one touches a hot stove twice. The offender knows instantaneously that a mistake was made).
A supervisor who exhibits a Theory X style of management is assertive- has little interest in seeking worker input or feedback to his or her directions- relies heavily on threats and coercion- and demands strict compliance from employees. Workers learn not to challenge management. Trust between manager and worker is diminished- possibly to the state of being non-existent- and the workplace atmosphere quickly becomes punitive.
When worker output fails to achieve the manager’s goals- more attention is directed toward assigning blame than on finding solutions based upon collaboration between workers and management.
A manager who believes that workers are interested in achieving department or corporate goals- are capable of self-control- and are motivated by holding a meaningful job is likely to be a proponent of Theory Y. Such managers are willing to seek input from workers- sharing with them the objectives to be met and encouraging worker suggestions regarding the best procedures for achieving shared objectives.
Theory Y management styles encourage greater attitudes of mutual trust between leaders and those being led. Workers feel they have a greater say in shaping the environment of the workplace.
Employee development is more likely to occur when management believes in Theory Y as the operative approach to the manager/worker relationship. The atmosphere is more collaborative and collegial. Unlike Theory X- which asserts that workers fundamentally dislike their careers and endure primarily for monitory rewards- Theory Y assumes that workers like what they do and are willing to accept responsibility for their actions.
Given sufficient education- support and re-enforcement- so states the theory- workers will be high performers for the company. Management’s job- therefore- is being more a coach and mentor than a disciplinarian.
Variations on X and Y
While it is tempting to take sides when discussing McGregor’s Theory X and Y- in practice these opposing attitudes toward worker motivation should be considered in relationship to the environment facing a manager.
The basic premise of Theory X—that workers dislike their careers—rarely- if ever- applies to Business Aviation. Very few pilots or maintenance specialists enter aviation just for monetary rewards or because their parents forced them to become aviators. Thus a Theory X style may seem totally inconsistent with managing a flight department- where most employees have a passion for aviation- are performance oriented and seek to be successful.
Yet there are situations where some issues fall uniquely within the knowledge base of the flight department manager and the direction he or she has been charged to pursue. In such cases- elements of Theory X may apply. Not all issues facing flight department managers fit neatly into a Theory Y box.
Management is an exercise in balance. To achieve positive results- a flight department manager needs to blend management theories and styles to develop a consistent and constructive relationship with those being managed. Knowledge of the attitudes Professor McGregor defined as Theory X and Theory Y is helpful in nurturing a style of management that creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and collective support.