Although when we think of psychology we are usually imagining the study of the human psyche and behavior in a clinical context, the truth is that this discipline works with multiple other fields; it is not limited to a health aspect. The mind is an object of study that remains active at all times, situations and contexts. One of the fields in which multiple investigations have been carried out in psychology is that of work , which is carried out by the Psychology of Work and Organizations . In this area, elements such as leadership, authority, following standards and employee productivity have been analysed.

There are multiple theories that have emerged throughout history and authors who have worked in this area, including Douglas Murray McGregor, who developed two opposing theories that explain both the way of exercising traditional leadership and another more humanistic one advocated by the author: is the X theory and the Y theory of McGregor . Let’s see what they consist of.

McGregor’s X and Y theories

After the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the first factories, the need to manage the way workers carried out their work appeared. It is well known that there was a great deal of labour exploitation at that time and it has continued over the centuries, with exhaustive control of what each employee did and providing few freedoms, as well as being limited to the performance of one or more specific tasks indicated by management (addressing both what should be done and how).

There are also numerous known revolts carried out to improve the conditions of workers, which would eventually lead to the creation of trade unions. The performance and productivity of employees was always something to be taken into account for managers, employing different strategies, the majority being the use of control, sanction and coercion to promote productivity, and money as a reward. But except for those people whose basic needs were not covered, productivity did not improve excessively.

The emergence of psychology as a science made it possible to analyze this type of situation and different theories were developed. Although the first theories considered the need to exercise more control and considered the worker mainly as a lazy person, later on other currents emerged that were contrary to this belief.

One of these authors, in this case from the 20th century, was Douglas McGregor. This author bases himself on Maslow’s theory of motivation and his hierarchy of human needs to propose that the lack of motivation and labour productivity is due to the fact that once the basic needs have been met, the stimuli needed to satisfy them cease to be motivating. New needs are generated, such as those of esteem and self-realization, which most companies of the time are not interested in supplying. For this reason, it proposes a new way of business operation as opposed to the limitations of the traditional one: theory Y, which contrasts with the traditional model or theory X, both models being mutually exclusive.

Theory X

The so-called X theory is an elaboration of McGregor from which tries to explain the way of understanding the company and the worker who had been the majority until now .

This traditional view considers the worker as a passive entity who must be forced to work, a lazy being who tends to work as little as possible and whose only motivation for doing so is to obtain money. He is considered to be uninformed, unable to manage change and conflict, and unambitious. Without thorough control they would not carry out their tasks.

Under this consideration, management must show leadership and exercise continuous control over employees in order to avoid their passivity. The behaviour of the employees will be monitored and all responsibilities will be assumed, providing them with limited tasks.

Leadership is therefore exercised in an authoritarian manner and by pointing out what each one should do and how . The rules are strict and strong sanctions, coercion and punitive measures are established to keep employees working. Money and remuneration are used as a basic element of motivation.

The Y theory

In theory X, McGregor explains the traditional way of understanding work that had been done since the time of the Industrial Revolution. However, he considers that it was necessary to start from a different theory that had a different vision of the worker and his role in the company. The result of this was the Y theory.

This theory indicates that management should be responsible for organizing the enterprise and its resources in order to meet its objectives, but that employees are not a passive element but an active one unless they are pushed to do so . It indicates the value and importance of motivation and challenge, a value that is often not taken advantage of and prevents employees from developing to their full potential. Nor is it observed that each individual has his or her own objectives that often have not been reflected with those of the company.

In this sense, it is the management of the company that must organize itself in such a way that the work promotes such development and allows the worker to fulfill not only objectives to which he or she does not feel bound, but also in the process of achieving the company’s goals, to achieve the goals themselves. It is also valued that the commitment is greater when there is recognition of their achievements , and that applying the workers’ capacities can generate solutions to unforeseen organisational problems or those for which the management does not have a valid solution.

This theory, which the author defended against the traditional or X, is fundamentally based on the idea of promoting self-government and encouraging worker self-control and autonomy, instead of seeing it as just another cog in the wheel. It aims to enrich the work by making the worker responsible for different tasks and to encourage him to be active and participative, capable of making his own decisions and feeling committed to his work. Training, giving information, negotiating objectives and responsibilities and generating a climate of trust are fundamental for the good functioning of the business.

It would therefore be a matter of exercising leadership that allows participation and trust, in which the work of the worker is appreciated, in which the work and personal responsibility is extended and enriched (for example through delegation of responsibilities) and which focuses on the achievement of objectives rather than on authority and personal power.

Difficulties in implementing Y theory

The author himself, although he proposes the Y theory as desirable and objective to achieve, recognizes the existence of obstacles and the difficulty of generating change in an era in which the operation of most companies was governed by classical theory. For example, there is the fact that managers should change their way of thinking and reorganize both their organizational structure and their operation , something that they will tend to resist.

In addition, it also indicates that it may be difficult for the worker to make this change, because in many cases they have become accustomed to being told and demanded a specific way of proceeding and being controlled by the work environment, and that their needs are only met outside of work. The potential of the workers has been limited by the management’s expectation that they are passive entities that should be forced to work, losing to a great extent their motivation for work.

What does Organizational Psychology say today?

With the passage of time, the work paradigm changed and the worker was no longer seen as a merely passive element in a large number of areas. Today we can see how a great majority of companies try to promote autonomy, and that proactivity has become one of the most demanded values in the labour field.

However, other later authors indicated that the Y model does not always work well: the most optimal type of operation will depend on the type of task to be performed . Other models have been proposed that attempt to integrate aspects of the traditional (X) and humanist (Y) views, in the so-called equilibrium theories.

Bibliographic references:

  • McGregor, D.M. (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. In Yarhood, D.L. (1986). Public Administration, Politics and People: Selected Readings for Managers, Employees and Citizens, New York: Longman Publishing Group; 134-144.
  • Lussier, R. N. & Achua, C. F. (2008). Leadership . Mexico: Cengage Learning.