Do you tell people what to do or do you trust them to do the right thing?

Are people inherently feckless and lazy, or are they yearning to be empowered and given a chance to show what they can do?

Most agree that the ‘king of the mountain – I’m the boss’ attitude has run its day and needs to go. A lucky few get to spend a bit of time on top, but most spend their existence getting dumped on. So why do we continue to do it?

The fundamental distinctions between two management styles were at the core of Douglas McGregor’s seminal work called ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ in the 1960s, and his work is just as relevant today as leaders strive to deal with flexible working. 

Back in the baby boomer years, the way we worked was straightforward. Work was somewhere you went, a physical place – “I’m going to work”. Whereas for many today, work is something you do anywhere on any device, it’s an activity and not a place, and Covid has advanced this far more quickly than anyone expected.

Collaborative flexible working is a reality for so many people now. But enlightened organisations have, for years, seen it as a way to both boost productivity and morale. Covid has proved to non-believing organisations that it works.

So, does this say something about leaders and the way they treat their people? And with all the options for home and flexible working, are they right to be sceptical about people’s ability to be self-motivated? Are they right to doubt that people won’t work unless you’re watching them? Or are they simply dinosaurs, who unknowingly reduce productivity, lose talent, and increase costs? 

Let’s take a look at some of the beliefs McGregor identified:

THEORY X: Authoritarian management beliefs

  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if they can.
  • Therefore, most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives.
  • The average person prefers to be directed; they avoid responsibility & are relatively unambitious.
  • They want security above all else.

THEORY Y: Participative management beliefs 

  • Effort in work is as natural as work & play.
  • People will apply self-control & self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
  • Commitment to objectives comes naturally to motivated employees.
  • People usually accept & often seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity & creativity in solving organisational problems is common.
  • The intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilised at work.

The difference between the two types of management styles is stark. Are organisations who resist change, and who discourage collaborative flexible working run by Theory X leaders? 

And are they unwittingly committing corporate suicide?