There has been a long tradition in the academic study of management that considers what makes people engage in work. In my sub-field of organizational behavior, this idea of motivation is one of the most important topics of research. The classic Theories X and Y (McGregor & Cutcher-Gershenfeld, 1960) consider the nature of people when it comes to engaging in tasks.
Theory X suggests that people need to be coerced, and perhaps even forced, to engage in tasks because the average human being dislikes work and wants to avoid obligations. On the other hand, Theory Y suggests that people inherently want to work willingly to help others and to be part of something bigger than themselves. One might say that Theory X and Y represent differing perspectives on the level of faith that someone might have in humanity. It might be related to the level of inherent goodness that someone believes exists within people.
There are, of course, some managers and organizations that have adopted the Theory X philosophy. They treat their employees like gears in a machine, not like the unique individuals that they are. They overwork them needlessly. They likely do not believe in the inherent goodness of people because they think that they must push their employees to do good for their customers and colleagues. I (and many others), on the other hand, believe in the inherent goodness in people. I think that people intrinsically want to help others without coercion or being forced to do so.
I saw this firsthand a few days ago. I was giving a presentation at the nearby Arnold Palmer Regional Airport for the Greater Latrobe/Laurel Valley Chamber of Commerce and was ready to go back into the office when I wrapped up. I was so excited because the presentation went really well – the attendees were very interactive and the session received a lot of positive feedback. It seemed like everyone took something away from the meeting. I was so energized by it and eager to get back to work that I barely noticed how low on air my tire had become. I guess I ran over a nail on my way to the session because, by the time I was down the road from the parking lot, the tire was completely flat. It was the only really icy and snowy day we had this winter (so far – I don’t want to jinx the weather!) and I didn’t want to drive on a spare tire, so I called AAA for some assistance. While I was waiting just a short time, five people stopped to see if I needed help! I was blown away by the kindness that each of them showed to a complete stranger who they thought might be stranded. They did this out of their own free will and good nature – they were not coerced or forced to do something nice for me. This is the opposite of Theory X – this is Theory Y.
I am often proud to teach and research at Saint Vincent College because I believe that students not only receive an excellent academic education, but because they are also educated in a manner consistent with Theory Y. From my perspective, professors believe in the inherent goodness of their students and respect them. The students, in turn, pass this respect on to others. I have seen this firsthand when I invited some guests to an event that was held recently on campus. They were shocked when a student opened the door for them. This is such a simple act but my guests remarked how courteous it was. I explained that, at Saint Vincent, this is often commonplace. By the way, our approach to Operational Excellence (OE) also teaches this. Our graduate program, for example, stresses that OE only works in those organizations that care about people. This means that they seek to provide quality products and services for their customers and that they trust and value their employees.
Do you have more of a Theory Y or a Theory X perspective? In your view, why do people engage in tasks? Because they intrinsically want to and it is good to do so? Or because they are coerced and have only extrinsic motivation? I definitely fall into the Theory Y mindset but am interested to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on Facebook and LinkedIn. You can also comment below.
By the way, by my count this is my 50th blog! It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing this for just over four years now. It seems like only yesterday that I started. Thank you so much for your continued reading.
Dr. Mike Urick
McGregor, D. & Cutcher-Gershenfeld, J. (1960). The human side of enterprise (Vol. 21, pp. 166-171). New York: McGraw-Hill.