Project Practitioners > Are you a Theory X (project) manager in Theory Y clothing? You're not fooling anyone!

Are you a Theory X (project) manager in Theory Y clothing? You're not fooling anyone!

By J LeRoy Ward

According to Wikipedia “Theory X and Theory Y are theories of human motivation that were created and developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s. These theories describe two contrasting models of workforce motivation that have been used in  human resource management, organizational behavior, organizational communication and organizational development," as well as by project managers the world over. 

A Theory X manager is one who believes that people need to be directed, are only motivated by money, and are seen as being generally lazy. Thus a Theory X manager tends to micro manage his or her staff,  makes all the decisions for the team because he or she does not trust them to do the right thing, and jangles dollar bills (or other carrots) in front of them (while wielding a big stick behind their back) to get them to do the things they may not want to do. 

A Theory Y manager, on the other hand, believes that people are motivated by work and the rewards that flow from doing a good job. Thus this type of manager allows the team the freedom to make their own decisions, learn new things, treats them with a great deal of respect, and gives them more challenging assignments as rewards for doing a good job. A Theory Y manager is one who encourages his folks to do a good job, provides them with the right resources, and then gets out of the way to let them fail (or succeed). Most importantly, a Theory Y manager doesn't "beat people up" when they take risks and fail.  

In reality, there are very few pure Theory X or Theory Y managers; rather, we all fall somewhere along the continuum of the polar opposites. Although, let’s be clear, there are “pure” Theory X and Theory Y managers. I know, because I worked for both at one point or another in my 40 years in the workforce. Maybe you have as well. 

The one interesting thing about my experience though is that the Theory X manager I worked for tried to pass herself/himself off as being at the other end of the continuum. They talked a good game, tried hard to sound reasonable in debates around the conference table, and made a modest effort at allowing people to make their own decisions. But their Theory X self kept coming through when-

  • she grew frustrated at having to try to accommodate other’s thinking about an issue
  • certain managers thought it was a good idea to let some folks work from home one or two days a week and he resisted because he thought they would goof off most of the day
  • HR kept telling her to say “thank you” (and mean it) more when people did a good job
  • he was “shocked and horrified” at the chutzpah of underpaid and overworked project team members when they asked for a raise 
  • she acted extremely offended when certain folks left the company “after all she had done for them,” this, after laying off scores without a hint of regret 


There’s only one thing worse than a Theory X manager and that’s one cloaked in Theory Y clothing. That’s the management equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They’re not fooling anyone. 

If you think you lean very hard in the direction of the Theory X manager, get some coaching, talk to co-workers and peers about how you can change. Why? Because I don’t know one person who likes to work for one. Boomers more or less tended to tolerate those culprits, but I have observed that the younger folks from Generation X and the Millenials just run for the door when having to deal with such Luddites. 

The question is, do you know what direction you tend to lean in? Ask some questions of the more honest members of your staff. They’ll be a big help either getting you on the right path or keeping you there. 

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Well said and on point, as always, LeRoy. X'ers are draining and disheartening and I've been personally fortunate to work for so many Y's that have allowed me to learn so much. Great suggestion for everyone to get some feedback so we can continue to improve!

First time I've commented one of these articles. This one 'rang a bell' with me. First off - I don't think you are constrained to be X or Y. Different styles are called for in different situations, projects and people. As a PM I can see examples where I had to flex all over the place in being what you call X or Y. Second, the Boomers, X'ers, Millenial talk is just way overdone. Human nature has not changed over the ages. We (PM's) are just too overwhelmed with the divisiveness and negative impact that this inter-generational labeling mentality brings. The greatest thinkers and do'ers of history did not think or talk on those terms. Why should we?

Great article. I believe i am Y type so far and would like to continue with this attitude.
In addition my boos GM has the same attitude that makes me continue working with him.

Theory X managers do well when they hire the people they have to work with, most managers tend to hire people like themselves unless there is a degree of self awareness and cognizance of the danger of hiring too many people like oneself

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