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Is Your Boss a Theory X Manager?


In 1960, Douglas Murray McGregor’s book The Human Side of Enterprise, proposed that a manager’s personal assumptions about human nature determine how that individual manages their employees. McGregor identified two distinct management styles utilized to motivate workers; he called them Theory X and Theory Y.

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A Theory X manager makes the basic assumption that employees don’t really want to do work, and that they need a nudge, a push, or a prod by a boss in order to do so. A Theory Y manager assumes that people go to work, and do work, because they want to satisfy their own intrinsic motivation and drive, and to accomplish and achieve. McGregor asked managers to examine the biases and assumptions that they bring to the table, and to construct a management style consciously. He was an advocate for Theory Y management.

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Although this book had a profound influence over 50 years ago, encouraging managers to second guess the lazy-man assumptions they held about workers, Theory X managers still exist today — although few will willingly cop to the label. These are some of the trickiest and most aggravating bosses out there. Understanding a bit about how they think and function could be helpful to their employees.

Here are a few ways to spot a Theory X manager.

1. It’s all about rewards and punishments.

Of course, many companies have some type of incentive program or offer bonuses for example, but a Theory X manager takes rewards and punishments to a whole new level. If you feel like someone is keeping a sticker chart on your every movement, it could be a sign that you have a Theory X manager on your hands.

2. There’s a lot of stopping by to check on you.

Many great bosses make the rounds, walking a daily beat around the office in order to have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on and connect with employees. But, if the motivation behind the march is to check up on you, then you might be dealing with a Theory X manager. This kind of boss might look over your shoulder at your computer screen, or ask about the validity of an activity you’re engaged in, or even say something to redirect your actions. The idea is that they’re always checking on you, trying to catch you doing something you shouldn’t be doing, when you’ve given them no reason to question your earnestness or your work ethic.

3. You often feel like you’re being put down.

The crux of this toxic style of management is that it assumes a lazy, under-achieving attitude on the part of the employee. This kind of thinking tends to show itself. If your boss is always talking up his accomplishments while putting down your past choices, it’s a pretty good sign they take this approach to management. They always need to feel that they took the right classes in college, are reading the right books, speak the right number of languages, and that you, the lowly employee, do not. Because they assume that if you did, you’d be the manager.

4. You’re micromanaged.

A Theory X manager would never allow you to work autonomously, on almost anything. Every aspect, nuance, and step of a project must be controlled by them. This can be especially challenging, because autonomy makes workers happy.

The truth is, a lot of managers tangle with some aspects of this style of leadership, even in 2015. McGregor provided us with a valuable tool to tackle this almost habitual cultural response to being the boss by asking managers to analyze the preconceptions they bring to the office with them each day. Through a respectful and compassionate shift in the way managers understand and appreciate their workers’ motivations, we should be able to continue to phase out this horrid, and harmful, managerial style.

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Have you experienced aspects of Theory X management in your workplace? Tell us about it! We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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