UK: The way we were.

UK: The way we were. - The lasting legacy of Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise and his Theory X and Y is that it shows how far management thinking has come.

by Trevor Merriden.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The lasting legacy of Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise and his Theory X and Y is that it shows how far management thinking has come.

In the film Carry on at your Convenience, a comic tale of industrial unrest at a toilet manufacturer in 1960s Britain, a shop steward storms into the office of the boss, Kenneth Williams. 'The workers are revolting,' snarls our man from the factory floor. 'Ooooh, you're telling me!' replies Williams, before realising the steward's meaning.

In the world of Douglas McGregor, Williams would surely have been a Theory X man. Yet, McGregor never lived to see the full talents of the Carry On team; he died in 1964, aged 58, just as he was starting to achieve significant recognition for his book, The Human Side of Enterprise.

In it, McGregor outlines two ways in which managers think of their workers.

The first, Theory X, assumes that all workers are born lazy, must be constantly browbeaten into doing a decent day's work and only turn up to work to collect their pay. Indeed, all humans actively dislike work and will avoid it wherever possible. Worse still, Theory X suggested that workers place their security of job tenure above ambition. We can all think of a few people who fit that description but, these days, we prefer to think better of those who work for us.

Theory X seems far more extreme today than it did back in 1960. Then, all-powerful corporate giants demanded a homogenised, obedient workforce.

Production was dedicated to the economies achieved through mass production of goods. Such economies meant that the system of production was considerably more important than the individuals working within it. Fortunately, it was around 1960 that some, including McGregor, a social psychologist at the forefront of the 'human relations' school of industrial relations management, were beginning to challenge such thinking.

Objecting to the dominance of Theory X in the workplace of the time, McGregor noted that 'if there is a single assumption that pervades conventional organisation theory, it is that authority is the central, indispensable means of managerial control.' McGregor then put forward an alternative perspective. Theory Y was based on the opposite set of assumptions, namely that people need not only to work but want to work.

Under Theory Y, the worker finds that physical and mental effort at work are as natural as in leisure; that external control and threats are not the sole means of control in an organisation; that the average human learns not only to accept but to seek responsibility; and that most of us have a capacity to display a high degree of imagination, and ingenuity in sorting out problems.

A less well-known aspect of McGregor's book is his examination of how workers learn about their performance at work. He identified 'social interaction' as a learning tool, by pointing out how little feedback we get on the way in which what we do during the working day affects other people. Less of a problem these days but, back in 1960, McGregor said performance 'is discussed by our colleagues when we are not present to learn about it'.

In other words, gossip down the pub.

So far, so obvious. Neither of McGregor's two polar opposites are attainable in any organisation. Even the most turgid corporate giant has human spirit lurking within it, while the most off-beam creative firms require an organisational underpinning. McGregor recognised this fact and was busy devising a hybrid of organisational and human endeavour, theory Z, when he died.

A hybrid would probably have just been a wish list of what a firm needs to be in order to encourage its workers as well as to achieve corporate objectives. That may seem obvious with hindsight but, back then, was anything but. Perhaps, therefore, the important thing about McGregor and all his theories is that they make us realise how far we have come. While most firms settle for a theory Z-style middle way of matching people with profits, all companies now aspire to the Theory Y perspective. Its obvious desirability is McGregor's lasting legacy.

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