Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y in Contemporary Organizations


Staff motivation is an idea that started after the discovery that employees are significant resources of an organization that affects productivity. Douglas McGregor developed theories X and Y in response to the lack of considering the organization’s human side under traditional management theories. Theory X and Y emerged in the 1960s as a framework for explaining workers’ behavior in the workplace to help managers select approaches to influence and maximize performance (Alefari et al., 2020). According to Theory X, an ordinary worker does not like work, is lazy, focuses on individual goals, and avoids responsibilities (Singh & Azman, 2020). Such a worker requires close supervision, rewards, and punishments to motivate the desired productive behaviors. Theory Y is the opposite and views workers as self-motivated, like work with motivation for self-improvement (Singh & Azman, 2020). The two perspectives provide managers with employees’ behaviors that affect motivation and engagement to plan ways to influence work engagement and satisfaction, which increases productivity. This paper reviews theories X and Y and evaluates their application in managing employees’ motivation and engagement in contemporary organizations.

Literature Review

Studies such as Alefari et al. (2020) and, Prottas and Nummelin (2018) show that theory X and theory Y have been maintained across time due to their support in developing effective employee engagement and motivational management approach. Although each of the theories has limitations, their usefulness in management has led to consistent use in ensuring organizations’ effectiveness. In a study, Prottas and Nummelin (2018) demonstrate that theories X and Y are significant in assessing how workers perceive managers and the impact of such perceptions. The theories provide a continuum of employees’ feelings towards management with changes in their nature, such as self-versus extremal motivation towards work. Alefari et al. (2020) also provide that theories X and Y remain in use following their application in explaining employee behaviors in the workplace. The theory suggests that human beings are in two categories based on the source of motivation. Some people work best with external stimulation such as rewards, while others have self-motivation from the need to achieve human needs levels. Alefari et al. (2020) observe that the theory provides important information to classify employees and later develop motivation and support organizational effectiveness interventions. As a result, the literature shows that theories X and Y is an important models in contemporary management to learn and influence workers’ behaviors.

Theory X

Although theory X is a pessimistic view, there are some instances when it helps to develop an engaged and motivated workforce to support organizational goals and performance. According to Karasel Ayda et al. (2018), people with complex human nature require managers with a theory X perception about workers to positively influence the organization. Karasel Ayda et al. (2018) performed research with results indicating that school heads who show negative administrative approaches to teachers with complex nature succeed in motivation. Negative managerial behaviors include monetary punishments and rewards which satisfy low-level needs. On the other hand, complex nature is an orientation to change from and with situations, organization, and time. Employees with complex nature might lack self-motivation towards work and a firm but improves with fear of losing employment and income. Badubi (2017) also makes a similar observation that sometimes rewards and punishment might be the only determinant of work motivation. Some employees go to work because there will be rewards but do not focus on other needs such as self-development which might lead to a desire to work and support corporate objectives. The literature reveals that theory X is important in ensuring positive behaviors in some employees without self-motivation.

Despite the positive view, theory X has received significant criticism for its lack of proper management in developing a strong and potential workforce from either poor or good quality employees. In their analysis, Singh and Azman (2017) observe that managers who utilize the theory’s assumptions fail to provide professional support and services needed in developing employees. The assumption that employees are lazy and do not want to work blocks the supervisor’s evaluation of their skills, abilities, and motivation. Failed evaluation implies that managers will not develop employees through training and other motivational support. Badubi (2017) makes a similar observation that teachers need help to deal with problematic students. However, where school heads are supportive, the teachers fail in their student management approaches due to a lack of enrichment and personal growth (Badubi, 2017). The author relates unsupportive principals’ management styles with theory X, assuming that teachers do not want to work. School heads are sources of teachers’ professional development through training, experience, and sharing. According to Badubi (2017), the coercive approach without delegation and independence denies teachers opportunities to grow in their work and becomes ineffective. The studies show that theory X is a barrier to employee development through reduced growth opportunities and managers’ support.

Studies such as Prottas and Nummelin (2018) and Azman (2017) have also expressed disproval of theory X based on its ability to sustain employees’ positive behaviors and motivation in the long term. According to Azman (2017), managers who adopt theory X motivate employees through money which bocks the need to achieve other life goals. Money provides for job security and pay, which are low-level psychological needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Achievement of the two conditions through money makes the source of motivation weak, leading to original non-performance behaviors (Azman, 2017). The belief in lack of self-motivation and laziness among employees makes managers fail to provide other higher-level needs that would sustain motivation after satisfying psychological needs through money. An empirical study had similar findings where theory X’s effect on healthcare workers’ motivation was reduced after meeting psychological needs (Prottas & Nummelin, 2018). According to Prottas and Nummelin (2018), theory X is important in motivating employees towards safety in the workplace but does not provide for higher-level needs. The studies argue the deficiency of theory X in continued motivation and support of employees, which is similar to the first limitation in failed worker improvement. The lack of a manager’s focus on higher-level needs implies flailed programs to develop employees’ effectiveness in their work.

Theory Y

Theory Y has also attracted researchers and managers, especially in developing management that improves the relationship with employees. According to Singh and Azman (2017) managers who minimize subordinate-superior relationship attracts workers’ confidence and reduce fear leading to a close link with the management. Theory Y influences managers to exercise low authority and supervision on workers following the assumption that employees have self-control, motivation, and ambition. Such low control appeals to workers that supervisors are confident in their work leading to improved confidence. Workers become free to interact and share opinions with their leaders leading to a relationship that supports more motivation toward organizational objectives. Prottas and Nummelin (2018) affirm the observation in a research study indicating that employees positively perceive managers with theory Y belief. Managers’ belief system affects employees’ behaviors and attitudes towards work, organization, and overall management. Prottas and Nummelin (2018) show that the theory Y leadership approach attracts workers towards the supervisors leading to a close relationship. Manager’s close relationship with employees is a motivation approach that makes workers prioritize the company’s interests.

Studies such as Karasel Ayda et al. (2018) also show that theory Y provides for human social needs in the workplace that supports employee satisfaction, engagement, and effectiveness. Karasel Ayda et al. (2018) observe that theory Y is important in the current Industrial Revolution to help the changing work environment that requires division of work and social networking. Theory Y increases interaction and sharing among employees due to management’s belief in self-motivation and workers’ desire to achieve organizational objectives. Karasel Ayda et al. (2018) observe that such managers are important to developing a working environment that provides the needed background to support employees’ need for sharing. Employees need to share knowledge, and ideas and support one another in the current knowledge-based firms leading to the significance of the theory Y. Badubi (2017) has a similar perspective about the theory stating that employees can go for responsibilities. However, the workers hardly accept duties from other people. According to Badubi (2017), employees need freedom, which comes with the theory Y management approach to interact with other people and develop independent decisions to support organizational objectives. The studies show that theory Y supports current work environments and employees’ needs by allowing for independence and social networking.


Choice of Managers and Management Approach

Information about theories X and Y show that theories influence managers’ choice and management approach that aligns with organizational culture, needs, and goals. Management theories inform about the relationship between supervisors and workers and its effect on productivity. Theory X and Y, for example, have been beneficial to organizations in explaining employees’ nature and behaviors towards an organization and managers’ attitudes to such practices (Karasel Ayda et al., 2018). Understanding that employees’ behaviors affect those of a manager, guides organizations to select supervisors who can influence workers’ performance. Managers have different management approaches, such as authoritative and democratic. While some are flexible to take any method depending on a situation, others are rigid to change. Following theories X and Y, organizations can pick managers who have qualities that can supply employees’ needs to adopt productive behaviors. Managers will also require changing the management style that will impact motivation and engagement depending on employees’ orientation to work. Through employee categorization, theory X and Y informs that managers and organizations cannot employ any management approach but have to assess their staff’s needs. Therefore, theories influence the organizational management approach by defining employees’ needs and their effect on organization performance in different situations.

On the other hand, theory X and Y provides a significant framework for organizations to choose managers and management styles. The framework classifies employee behaviors into two, self and externally motivated. Additionally, the framework defines two types of managers, including pessimistic and optimistic about employees’ motivation. Understanding employees’ behaviors are important in looking for people who can improve them to maximize performance. The literature on theories X and Y reveals that workers develop attitudes based on managers’ perceptions about employees (Prottas & Nummelin, 2018). The theory goes ahead to show situations where employees can develop positive or negative appeal. An organization can assess potential managers who will influence attachment and relationships that motivate employees through such a framework. Managers can also examine themselves along their juniors’ behaviors to develop a style that will attract positive attitudes and satisfaction. Theory X and Y guide managers on areas they can evaluate in their subordinates to adjust their approach by classifying behaviors into complex or social (Karasel Ayda et al., 2018). For social nature, a manager should utilize theory Y, while for complex appearance, theory X provides the best way of influencing employee motivation and performance. As a result, contemporary organizations use theories to select the most effective managers which are evident in the way supervisors react toward workers.

Employee Motivation and Support Practices

Theory X and Y also demonstrate that management frameworks affect the choice of employee support and motivational systems. Studies reveal that theory X and Y classifies employees’ values towards the organization into two, reward and growth-focused (Badubi, 2017). Although the approach suggested that managers’ views of workers can be pessimistic or optimistic, research confirms that employees have divergent motivating factors (Badubi, 2017). Unlike the other management approaches, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, theory X demonstrates that some managers, pessimists, can assume that employees can have low-level requirements without motivation for the higher ones. In such a case, managers would go for temporary motivational factors such as punishment and reward against the job’s value. However, managers who utilize theory Y would seek to support employees through a conducive work environment to become more effective. Depending on employees’ perspectives and values, managers would settle for short-term or long-term motivation and support factors. Thus, theory X and Y demonstrates that the choice of a management and managers’ framework influences employees’ support system.

Further, theory X and Y provides a framework where managers can select the best employee motivation system. Employees’ job satisfaction and motivation depend on their relationship with a supervisor. A close relationship implies support, trust, and confidence, while a distance one with authoritative management implies mistrust and reduces worker engagement. Theory X and Y guide managers in developing the right relationship with employees and, therefore, satisfaction. For example, the theory directs that self-motivated staff appreciates flat structures with minimal supervision. Such managers receive positive ratting while encouraging the team to come closer and share organizational objectives. A similar approach would not encourage workers under theory X with complex nature affecting the bond. The theory helps supervisors compare their style with employees’ nature and evaluate a positive relationship and motivation. Apart from relationships, organizations can use employees’ personalities and needs as perspectives X and Y define to develop practices and programs that increase engagement and satisfaction. Research on the theory demonstrates that employees under each view, X or Y have unique orientations, either Complex or social nature with divergent needs (Karasel Ayda et al., 2018). Supplying the needs enhances performance. As a result, theory X and Y supports the development of motivation systems.


In conclusion, theories X and Y demonstrate that understanding staff behaviors is important for an organization to plan programs that can influence them, leading to a motivated and engaged workforce. While some employees can have internal, others can be externally motivated without the need for personal development. However, the theory assumes that employees’ views from either perspective can be manager-dependent and affect the worker-supervisor relationship. The management approach that managers and organizations choose involves motivating and engaging workers and can lead to positive or negative outcomes. Theory X and Y provide a structure for assessing employees’ behaviors and managers’ perspectives to adjust to the best motivational styles.


Alefari, M., Almanei, M., & Salonitis, K. (2020). Lean manufacturing, leadership, and employees: The case of UAE SME manufacturing companies. Production & Manufacturing Research, 8(1), 222-243.

Badubi, R. M. (2017). Theories of motivation and their application in organizations: A risk analysis. International Journal of Innovation and Economic Development, 3(3), 44-51.

Karasel Ayda, N., Kaşot, N., & Güneyli, A. (2018). Approaches of school administrators toward teachers with different types of human nature: The Cyprus case. Behavioral Sciences, 8(8), 66-85

Prottas, D. J., & Nummelin, M. R. (2018). Theory X/Y in the health care setting: Employee perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. The Health Care Manager, 37(2), 109-117.

Singh, P. S. J., & Azman, A. (2017). Motivation and leadership in social service management: A review of theories. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 8(10), 92-98.

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