Theory X and Theory Y Douglas McGregor (1960) built on Maslow’s theory by adding another important idea: that managers’ assumptions about people tend to become self-ful”lling prophecies. McGregor argued that most managers harbor “Theory X” assumptions that subordinates are passive and lazy, have little ambition, prefer to be led, and resist change. Most conventional management practices, in his view, had been built on either “hard” or “soft” versions of Theory X. The hard version emphasizes coercion, tight controls, threats, and punishments. Over time, it generates low productivity, antagonism, militant unions, and subtle sabotage— conditions that were turning up in workplaces across the United States at the time. Soft versions of Theory X try to avoid con!ict and keep everyone happy. The usual result is super”cial harmony with undercurrents of apathy, indifference, and smoldering resentment.
McGregor’s key point was that a hard or soft Theory X approach is self-ful”lling: If you treat people as if they’re lazy and need to be directed, they live down to your expectations. Managers who say they know from experience that Theory X is the only way to get anything done are missing a key insight: The fact that people respond to you in a certain way may say more about you than about them. McGregor advocated a different way to think about people that he called Theory Y. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was the foundation:
The man whose needs for safety, association, independence, or status are thwarted is sick as surely as the man who has rickets. And his sickness will have behavioral consequences. We will be mistaken if we attribute his resultant passivity, hostility, and refusal to accept responsibility to his inherent human nature. These forms of behavior are symptoms of illness—of deprivation of his social and egoistic needs (McGregor, 1960, pp. 35–36).
Theory Y’s key proposition is that “the essential task of management is to arrange conditions so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing efforts toward organizational rewards” (McGregor, 1960, p. 61). If individuals “nd no satisfaction in their work, management has little choice but to rely on Theory X and external control. Conversely, the more managers align organizational requirements with employee self- interest, the more they can rely on Theory Y’s principle of self-direction.
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Personality and Organization Like his contemporary McGregor, Chris Argyris (1957, 1964) saw a basic con!ict between human personality and prevailing management practice. Argyris argued that people have basic “self-actualization trends”—akin to the efforts of a plant to reach its biological potential. From infancy into adulthood, people advance from dependence to independence, from a narrow to a broader range of skills and interests. They move from a short time perspective (interests quickly developed and forgotten, with little ability to anticipate the future) to a much longer-term horizon. The child’s impulsivity and limited self-knowledge are replaced by a more mature level of self-awareness and self- control.
Like McGregor, Argyris believed that organizations often treated workers like children rather than adults—a view eloquently expressed in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “lm Modern Times. In a classic scene, Chaplin’s character works furiously on an assembly line, trying to tighten bolts on every piece that slides past. Skill requirements are minimal, and he has no control over the pace of his work. An ef”ciency expert uses Chaplin as the guinea pig for a newmachine designed to feed him lunch while he continues to tighten bolts. It goes haywire and begins to assault Chaplin with food—pouring soup on his lap and shoving bolts into his mouth. The “lm’s message is clear: Industrial organizations abuse workers and treat them like infants.
Argyris and McGregor saw person-structure con!ict built into traditional principles of organizational design and management. The structural concept of task specialization de”nes jobs as narrowly as possible to improve ef”ciency. But the rational logic often back”res. Consider the experience of autoworker Ben Hamper. His observations mirror a story many other U.S. workers could tell:
I was seven years old the “rst time I ever set foot inside an automobile factory. The occasion was Family Night at the old Fisher Body plant in Flint where my father worked the second shift. If nothing else, this annual peepshow lent a whole world of credence to our father’s daily grumble. The assembly line did indeed stink. The noise was very close to intolerable. The heat was one complete bastard.
After a hundred wrong turns and dead ends, we found my old man down on the trim line. His job was to install windshields using this goofy apparatus with large suction cups that resembled an octopus being cruci”ed. A car would nuzzle up to the old man’s work area and he would be waiting for it, a cigarette dangling from his lip, his arms wrapped around the windshield contraption as if it might suddenly rebel and bolt off for the ocean. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Car,
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windshield. No wonder my father preferred playin’ hopscotch with barmaids (Hamper, 1992, pp. 1–2).
Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, Ben Hamper became an auto- worker—the pay was good, and he didn’t know anything else. He soon discovered a familiar pattern. His career began decades after Argyris and McGregor questioned the fallacies of traditional management, but little had changed. Hamper held down a variety of jobs, each as mindless as the next: “The one thing that was impossible to escape was the monotony. Every minute, every hour, every truck, and every movement was a plodding replica of the one that had gone before” (1992, p. 41).
The specialization Ben Hamper experienced in the auto plant calls for a clear chain of command to coordinate discrete jobs. Bosses direct and control subordinates, thus encouraging passivity and dependence. The con!ict worsens at lower levels of the hierar- chy—narrower, more mechanized jobs, more directives, and tighter controls. As people mature, con!ict intensi”es. Leann Bies was 44 with a bachelor’s degree in business when she started work as a licensed electrician at a Ford truck plant in 2003, and “for two years they treated me as if I were dumber than a box of rocks. You get an attitude if you are treated that way” (Uchitelle, 2007, p. 10).
Argyris argued that employees try to stay sane by looking for ways to escape these frustrations. He identi”ed six options:
1. They withdraw—through chronic absenteeism or simply by quitting. Ben Hamper chronicled many examples of absenteeism and quitting, including a friend who lasted only a couple of months:
My pal Roy was beginning to unravel in a real rush. His enthusiasm about all the money we were makin’ had dissipated and he was having major dif”culty coping with the drudgery of factory labor. His job, like mine, wasn’t dif”cult. It was just plain monotonous . . .
The day before he quit, he approached me with a box-cutter knife sticking out of his glove and requested that I give him a slice across the back of the hand. He felt sure this ploy would land him a few days off. Since slicing Roy didn’t seem like a solid career move, I refused. Roy went down the line to the other workers where he received a couple of charitable offers to cut his throat, but no dice on the hand. He wound up sulking back to his job. After that night, I never saw Roy again (1992, pp. 40, 43).
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2. They stay on the job but withdraw psychologically, becoming indifferent, passive, and apathetic. Like many other workers, Ben Hamper didn’t want to quit, so he looked for ways to cope with the tedium. His favorite was to “double up” by making a deal with another worker to take turns covering each other’s job. This made it possible to get full pay for half a day’s work:
What a setup. Dale and I would both report to work before the 4:30 horn. We’d spend a half hour preparing all the stock we’d need for the evening. At 5:00, I would take over the two jobs while Dale went to sleep in a makeshift cardboard bed behind our bench . . . I’d work the jobs from 5:00 until 9:24, the of”cial lunch period. When the line stopped, I’d give Dale’s cardboard cof”n a good kick. It was time for the handoff. I would give my ID badge to Dale so that he could punch me out at quitting time, (1992, p. 61).
If doubling up didn’t work, workers invented other diversions, like Rivet Hockey (sailing rivets into a coworker’s foot or leg) and Dumpster Ball (kicking cardboard boxes high enough to clear a dumpster).