Hey Leaders: X Marks the Spot…or Does It?

X Marks The Spot

Recently I have been reading a lot of business best sellers, both current and classic (and while I would argue that these readings are really more communication books than business books, that’s a post for another time). As an academic I’m always interested in seeing how key concepts are presented and applied, and often can take examples from these popular sources back to my students as a means of clarifying an idea or theory.

For the past thirty or so years, key figures consistently are referenced as foundational to various business perspectives and concepts. Among these great minds is Douglas McGregor who presented the idea of Theory X and Theory Y employees in his The Human Side of Enterprise.

Finding X or Y

In this now definitive essay, McGregor categorizes employees as either Theory X employees, who are seen as lazy, unambitious, avoidant of responsibility, and off to their own doing as soon as management is out of sight; or Theory Y employees, who embrace their responsibilities, seek additional challenges, and view work to be “as natural as play”.  These attributes often are highlighted specific to motivation, which, indeed, is a focal point of McGregor’s original work.

However, too frequently the discussion of this theory begins and ends with the employee attributes.

What often gets lost in the extended analyses of McGregor’s description of employees is that this is a management theory.  While the characteristics associated with Theory X and Theory Y employees  certainly help provide anchors for a spectrum of employee types, it is equally important to recognize leadership’s role.

Perceptions of Employees

McGregor speaks to management assumptions based on their perceptions of their employees. For example, let’s say a manager notes that an employee, Kim, is forever coming in late to work and really seems to have a thing for John, whose desk she stops at every morning when she gets coffee.

It would not be surprising for the manager to assume Kim fits the Theory X mold. He might assume that she has little regard for timeliness and work responsibilities, and that her interest in John is far more personal than professional.

However, if the manager asked around, he might learn that Kim participates in the company’s social outreach program and mentors students before school, putting in extra hours throughout the week to  make up for any lost time.  She also has been instrumental in collaborating with John from the accounting department to streamline billing protocols, resulting both in a reduction of wasted resources and an increased customer satisfaction ratings.

Marking the Spot

Even if we assume the opposite occurs, that is, less enthusiastic workers are mistaken for shining stars, there are other repercussions.  Managers are more likely to offer additional opportunities to employees they view as industrious and competent.

If someone is marked as a Theory Y employee, the expectations of him may be too high as his receives additional responsibilities which he is ill-equipped to handle. He may be less likely to seek assistance because he does not want to appear incompetent, or to disappoint his boss.

Inevitably mistakes happen, blame ensues and someone loses a job.

Taking the Right Approach

Just as there are qualities associated with Theory X and Y employees there are characteristics associated with leadership. Leaders of Theory X employees believe that employees are motivated almost exclusively by monetary incentives so they attempt to maximize responsiveness.

Some take a “hard” approach and try to control through coercion and keeping a tight rein on all that goes on, while others favor a “soft” approach and allow more freedom in the hope that their kindness will be rewarded when a pressing task comes along.

Neither approach is ideal as both establish a standard that is difficult and undesirable to maintain. Further, it can be an emotional and physical drain to continually attempt to control behavior in the hope of gaining compliance, which results in lost time to actually conduct business.

Conversely, Theory Y managers have a better sense of employee motivation, and recognize that individual fulfillment is more effective in creating a humanistic and productive workplace. This allows both employees and leadership to explore opportunities that otherwise may not arise under the micro-managing domain of a Theory X approach.

Although developed more than half a century ago, McGregor’s theory remains surprisingly (and perhaps disappointingly) reflective of many current practices, and also provides an excellent baseline for reviewing not only how we view our employees, but also to reflect on the foundation from which that perception stems.

On what do you base your judgments of your employees? Do you consider their actual behaviors and actions, or your perceptions of their behaviors and actions? Did these perceptions grow and develop as you learned more about the employee, or are you holding on to first impressions?


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Andrea M. Pampaloni, Ph.D.

Andrea M. Pampaloni, Ph.D is AMP Consulting
She provides Organizational Communication Consulting & Research Focused on
Relationship-Building and Presentation of Image
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Image Sources: southbankcentre.co.uk

L2L Contributing Author


  1. jamestollefson on August 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Well said. As with all human problems, the key to leadership is to actually exercise our God-given gift of discernment and use our brains to solve problems. Using cookie-cutter formulas to short circuit our responsibility as leaders to really get to know our people is criminal.

  2. Andrea M. Pampaloni on August 6, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks, James (and thanks for your service to country, too!). You’ve hit the nail on the head: a little common sense goes a long way!