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Chairman Mac in perspective
Article Type: Chairman Mac in perspective From: Journal of Management History, Volume 17, Issue 2
As economists must acknowledge Keynes, managers in organizations must pay dues to the “founder” of Theory Y.
Douglas McGregor was an epochal figure in his own time, and remains one, for that matter. He created a “new taste” across the entire field of management and the newer field of organizational behavior. One can agree or disagree with his writings, but they are always there as something to shoot for or at, depending on one’s viewpoint. All of us who live and work in large, organized settings – practitioners and scholars alike – sing his exultant chants, or lament their popularity, or question their validity. Just as every economist, knowingly or not, pays his dues to Keynes, we are all, one way or another, McGregorian.
Douglas McGregor was my teacher, colleague, boss and friend. We met at a point in my life – they do not happen so frequently as one grows older – when I was extra vulnerable to what nowadays is called a “role model”. I was fresh out of the Army, age 22, and restarting at Antioch College as a freshman during the time when he was its president. His reputation had been secured through a clutch of magazine articles and his teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he headed the Industrial Relations Section.
I mention this at the outset – although our friendship is well-known – to warn the reader that I am not “your neutral critic” (if, indeed, any critic is totally neutral; one’s biases are always there, tacit perhaps, but easily discerned, the way a batter can detect a pitcher’s curves). Despite all that, I believe I can be detached – if not “objective” – and even critical toward one who has meant so much to me personally. McGregor possessed a craggy tentativeness, a lust for exploration, and an irresistible charm that was hard to cope with, if one had reason to fight it. But what made me admire him so much at the time – although I never verbalized it to myself until much later, when we became “grown-up” friends during our years together at MIT – was the fact that he pretty much embodied (or tried to) the theories he wrote about.
When he was unable to exemplify that ideal, for whatever reasons, he felt sick or guilty or, usually, both. He fretted a lot about that, and I am certain that the deep lines in his face, the so-called “worry lines”, were gouged more deeply because of that persistent fear, guilt feeling or whatever. I am also convinced that these occasional and quite understandable contradictions between his writings and his personal life were a partial cause of his premature death in 1964, at the age of 58.
That famous “Y”
His work, like his personality, was all of a piece. Nothing he wrote failed to reflect, in one way or another, his later-to-be-developed trademark now immortalized by that simple initial “Y”.
His famous “Theory Y” speech was delivered at the Fifth Anniversary Convocation of MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan School of Management in April 1957. The Human Side of Enterprisewas the title of the speech, and it was under that title that McGregor (1960) published his first book in 1960. He adapted the important HBR article, “An uneasy look at performance appraisal”, as a chapter in it. The book continues to do well 12 years after publication; the last time I saw the publisher’s sales graphs, its sales were running at about 30,000 copies a year.
What did McGregor say to captivate the managerial public he was addressing? Basically, he postulated a new theory of man (partly borrowed from the psychological theorists of “self-actualization”, especially Abraham Maslow), a new theory of power, and a new set of values that would guide the spirit of the industrial workplace. They can be summed up under his useful dichotomy.
Theory X and Y. Theory X represents a series of propositions about what McGregor felt was the conventional conception of management’s task in harnessing human energy to organizational requirements. In the speech he listed them this way:
Management is responsible for organizing the elements of productive enterprise – money, materials, equipment, people – in the interest of economic ends.
With respect to people, this is a process of directing their efforts, motivating them, controlling their actions, modifying their behavior to fit the needs of the organization.
Without this active intervention by management, people would be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs.
The average man is by nature indolent – he works as little as possible.
He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led.
He is inherently self-centered, indifferent to organizational needs.
He is by nature resistant to change.
He is gullible, not very bright, the ready dupe of the charlatan and the demagogue.
McGregor believed that conventional organizational structures, practices and managerial policies reflect and reinforce these assumptions.
Now that I have quoted the elements of Theory X, I realize that Theory X is alive and living in most of our institutions – regardless of how intellectually acceptable Theory Y is or how spectacular the book sales are. It is not only alive in our industrial world, but active in the assumptions behind advertising campaigns, political campaigns, educational practices and the management of welfare and health institutions. Why did I once think it was not?
In his speech, McGregor presented Theory Y, using another set of propositions:
People are not by nature passive or resistant to organizational needs. They have become so as a result of experience in organizations.
The motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people. Management does not put them there. It is a responsibility of management to make it possible for people to recognize and develop these human characteristics for themselves.
The essential task of management is to arrange organizational conditions and methods of operation so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing their own efforts toward organizational objectives.
Furthermore, he said:
This is a process primarily of creating opportunities, releasing potential, removing obstacles, encouraging growth, providing guidance. It is what Peter Drucker has called “management by objectives” in contrast to “management by control”.
“An Uneasy Look at Performance Appraisal” is studded with Theory Y assumptions – though it was published long before that phrase was immortalized. It does not take an organizational theorist to spot them; they fairly leap out at you. Consider:
Resistance to conventional appraisal programs is eminently sound. It reflects an unwillingness to treat human beings like physical objects. The needs of the organization are obviously important, but when they come into conflict with our convictions about the worth and the dignity of the human personality, one or the other must give.
[The subordinate] is no longer a pawn in a chess game called management development.
Effective development of managers does not include coercing them (no matter how benevolently) into acceptance of the goals of the enterprise, nor does it mean manipulating their behavior to suit organizational needs. Rather, it calls for creating a relationship within which a man can take responsibility for developing his own potentialities, plan for himself, and learn from putting his plans into action. In the process, he can gain a genuine sense of satisfaction, for he is utilizing his own capabilities to achieve simultaneously both his objectives and those of the organization.
All the themes that informed his earlier work and those that culminated in The Human Side of Enterprise are there:
Active participation by all involved.
A transcending concern with individual dignity, worth and growth.
Re-examination and resolution of the conflict between individual needs and organizational goals, through effective interpersonal relationships between superiors and subordinates.
A concept of influence that relies not on coercion, compromise, evasion or avoidance, pseudo-support or bargaining, but on openness, confrontation and “working through” differences.
A belief that human growth is self-generated and furthered by an environment of trust, feedback and authentic human relationships.
The employee must take the responsibility for his own growth. McGregor would not tolerate “pseudogrowth” forced on the individual by the overzealous superior who manipulates, no matter how well intentioned he is, or by a sadist who uses fear as a crutch to hide his own fears. Growth is organic, natural. The best a leader can do is understand the conditions creating a climate of growth and do his best to irrigate. The leader intervenes only rarely – and at great risk.
I want to underline something now that I passed over too quickly before. Theory Y (and X, for that matter) does not necessarily reflect attributes of the “subordinate” – a term McGregor often used, which lends a certain rustic, archaic tone to the paper – but constitutes a set of assumptions held by the manager (or “superior”) toward his workers. Theory X or Theory Y is the manager’s construct or hypothesis about human behavior; or to be somewhat fancier, if not more precise, it is part of his “cosmology”, his existential core. McGregor believed that the manager’s constructs of motivation – not gleaned from books, but drawn from the library of life – create the conditions whereby the subordinates’ behavior is or may be Y-ish or X-ish. Perhaps, that is why McGregor found the concept of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” so fetching and useful.
Expectations about “the other” (a ubiquitous and important, if somewhat shadowy, figure in most of the social sciences) to a large extent determine the appropriate behavioral response. In short, treat workers as if they care, have integrity, and want to be committed to the organization and work hard toward its goals. And, the wonder of it is, they do. Or most of them do.
Disciples and critics
McGregor’s writings, especially after the enthusiastic reception of The Human Side of Enterprise, facilitated – if not directly influenced – a number of related developments in the practice of management. The application of T-groups (sensitivity training and so forth) to actual, on-line, real-life organizations began in earnest in the late 1950s and has continued at an accelerated rate to the present. McGregor’s work provided the badly needed theory that attempted to translate a “small group” model of change – basically an interpersonal one – from a laboratory situation, distant in time and space from the sweaty and plebeian day-to-day life of the real-world, to intact, functioning organizations. The work of Likert, Haire, Clark, Blake and Mouton, Argyris, Schein, Leavitt, Shepard, Beckhard and so many others owes in large part its acceptance and development to McGregor’s writings.
The newer field of organizational development (OD), nowadays referred to as “OD”, emerged from this tradition and has since matured into an important area of theory, research and practice. One example of the practical consequences of this development is the establishment of new departments and corporate vice presidents of OD. These departments and executives take as their chief responsibility the examination and promotion of work environments that facilitate Theory Y responses.
Douglas McGregor’s writings attracted devoted disciples and devoted critics. They were bound to, for any new and useful idea always bootlegs in prescriptive and moral imperatives that stand at an angle to conventions and practices. Of course, there were some who criticized his work because they detected in it (quite correctly) a style of behavior antithetical to their own value systems.
Our attitudes about leadership and followership are not exclusively rational or cognitive. They go to the very core of our character. One can change style, I suppose – how easily I am not certain, although politicians seem to carry it off almost as well as good actors. But character?
Our conceptions of leadership are formed relatively early in life. They are based on family, church and school experiences, so that we “know in our hearts” what is right (and wrong) about leadership behavior. Consequently, it is far easier to search for fallacies in a theory or find a lack of scientific confirmation or empirical validity than it is to question one’s basic values or self-concept.
The imagery of leadership in American society (and most others, for that matter) is forged from a long heritage of folklore, fables, myths, ritual and the literature about heroes: Moses, Gary Cooper out of “High Noon”, Lawrence of Arabia, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, “Boss” Kettering and the lonely conquistador whether in science (Newton and Darwin) or the practical arts (Edison and Columbus).
These heroes are courageous, “self-made”, without friends or colleagues, swashbuckling and single-handedly triumphing over great odds. These primal types are as natural and automatic to us as breathing.
How could a Theory Y manager run a railroad? How could a leader listen so much without appearing passive, weak or permissive? It sounds like a creampuff, “oh-you-kid” kind of leadership style. The leader should lead, damn it! It is performance, not buddy-buddy nonsense that counts. Anyway, nice guys finish last. How could a philosophy of management work that gives away the prerogatives of decision making to subordinates? That sounds suspiciously like communism.
Those are not concocted criticisms; they represent only a mild sampling of typical responses. The one about communism is (or used to be) frequently expressed, and is undoubtedly the least relevant to McGregor’s argument. McGregor steadfastly held to the accountability and responsibility of the formal organization’s leadership. “Power equalization”, a term applied to Theory Y by a few thoughtful critics, just does not hold water. McGregor, at least, never hinted or implied any surrender of power.
Indeed, he argued that a trusting, open and honest superior-subordinate relationship adds to, rather than subtracts from, the superior’s ability to influence his subordinate (Incidentally, this also means that it adds to the subordinate’s ability to influence his superior.)
Two justifiable criticisms of McGregor’s work come to mind. They are not especially new, nor were they unknown to him. We discussed them a number of times, though I must confess that one of the two never was clearly answered. That one has to do with the burden assumed by the boss. The other concerns application of Theory Y in an increasingly complex world.
How to Satisfy the Boss’s Needs? The poet W.H. Auden once wrote that every genius possesses an “essential error”, some skewed distortion of reality that informs his work. In McGregor, the essential error can be detected throughout his work, although, like “invisible weaving”, it may not be discernible at the surface.
It is directly related to his conception of Theory Y leadership. What is a Theory Y leader really like, according to McGregor’s description (and enshrinement) of him? He is caring, protective, a wise helper counselor. He rarely intervenes except when asked or when absolutely necessary. He is a perceptive human ecologist, adjusting dials and cultivating the perfect organizational climate so that his labors, unsung and unnoticed, create Pygmalion-like transformations in his charges.
The success or failure of his subordinates is his responsibility, really, despite McGregor’s claim that individual growth is a function of the individual himself. For, after all, the boss, like the mother who uses Dr Spock’s books (McGregor and Spock have a lot in common), is held responsible for the nurture and development of his employees (offspring). Whether they develop, succeed and “actualize” is his burden.
But in this human equation, where and when do the boss’s needs, growth, defenses, distortions, “hang-ups”, disappointments, narcissism, sufferings come into play? Has he been so beautifully sensitized or super analyzed that he actually has no needs – or, if he does, will not press them on others? Is it enough to play a Pygmalion game in the factory? Is it enough to experience the epiphany of successive, vicarious parental triumphs?
I wonder whether the Theory Y leader can trust the capacity, resources, or maturity of underlings to understand, let alone cope with, his full range as a person. Can he freely express his imperfections and learn from his employees (as I think he should be able to) so that he can realize his full human potential?
Theory Y leadership does not strike me as fully human. For where does it allow anger, destructiveness, inconsistency or playfulness? What does it say about people (employees) who are competent loners, incorrigible weaklings, liars, villains or those Thurber-like characters who simply do not want to be helped, counseled and nurtured? What does it say about those who, for whatever reason, want to remain distant from authority figures? Are they all Portnoys?
I wonder whether employees may not feel “infantalized” through behavior that is truly Christ-like and that ultimately reflects not only the leader’s lack of trust in his charges but also a more important and more subtle lack of trust in himself.
In “An Uneasy Look at Performance Appraisal”, in other writings, and in lectures, McGregor fumed against “playing God”. Perhaps, the old-fashioned, free-wheeling autocrat was. But what does it mean to sublimate one’s own achievements and recognition in the service of the inchoate and eminently protean subordinate? White man’s burden – that is what it means to me. I wonder what that burden does to the human psyche.
I wonder too what life would be like on a planet populated by Theory Y leaders. On balance, it would probably be an improvement. But the price for those who seek this style of influence should be posted for all to see.
Environmental void. The second of my criticisms has been voiced by many others and was fully recognized by McGregor. Indeed, at the time of his death he was finishing a book, The Professional Manager, which took into account many, though not all, of these shortcomings.
The criticism goes this way: McGregor’s theory of organization depends on a psychologically determined set of superior-subordinate relationships operating in an environmental void. There are no technological factors, norms or groups, nor are there economic, cultural, legal or political impositions.
Nor does the theory fully take into account changing world conditions, such as educational advancements, pollution, conflict and population growth, that bring strong environmental forces to bear on the micro-organization.
The organizational environment is becoming more active, turbulent, spastic, and consequential. Organizational goals, to take just one example, cannot be determined solely by the subordinate (in collaboration with his superior, to be sure) because they are nowadays more than ever challenged and revised by shareholders, consumer advocates, taxpayers and many other noisy and incessantly demanding constituencies.
Without elaborating the point, I can say that, in addition to the forces within the organization which McGregor’s work never fully recognized or reckoned with, increasingly powerful external forces are registering their impact on decision making. Constituents, political bodies, judicial overkill, foreign relations and trade and the mass media are a few.
So perhaps the growth of organizational complexity and the increased interdependency of various institutions make McGregor’s image of the superior-subordinate relationship as moot as an earlier image of the educational process has become. I am referring to Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. It is a swift stream, with lots of surprises and turbulence still ahead. Possibly we ought to worry about the viability of the very idea of two persons on a log.
Marks of genius
Criticizing McGregor helps me to remember his genius, far more than the panegyrics that I and others have lavished on the man and his works. Near the beginning of this paper, I implied that we have internalized his ideas and concepts. We take them for granted, forgetting his contribution in the process. McGregor helped me invent my very first aphorism: “The good parent, the good teacher, and the good consultant all share one thing in common: they always give birth to orphans”. He was that inspirational a teacher.
He was a genius, not necessarily for the originality of his ideas, which were often “in the air” or developed by similarly creative spirits. He was a genius because he had clarity of mind, a rare empathy for the manager and a flair for the right metaphor that established a new idea.
Ideas are always invented before their founders hit on them. There must have been an “identity crisis” before Erikson coined the phrase. Theory X and Theory Y certainly existed before McGregor. But he named them, called them. The old joke about the umpire in the last half of the last inning in the last and determining game of the world series comes to mind. The score is tied, the bases are loaded, two are out, and the batter has a three to two count. The ball is pitched and the umpire hesitates. The batter turns around angrily and shouts: “Well, what the hell is it?” And the umpire replies: “It ain’t nothing till I call it!”
“Calling it” in science or in the world of practice requires not only those other remarkable attributes of McGregor, but that important and difficult element, courage. He had that too – in abundance.
In 1950, McGregor wrote:
Out of all this has come the first clear recognition of an inescapable fact: we cannot successfully force people to work for management’s objectives. The ancient conception that people do the work of the world only if they are forced to do so by threats or intimidation, or by the camouflaged authoritarian methods of paternalism, has been suffering from a lingering fatal illness for a quarter of a century. I venture the guess that it will be dead in another decade. He was characteristically optimistic about the death of authoritarianism, but he was unerring, as usual, in putting his finger on the right issue at the right time. He might have helped, had he lived, to bring it about a lot sooner.
Every so often, someone encapsulates a timely idea in such striking wording that the idea quickly penetrates the general consciousness. Such is the case with “Theory X” and “Theory Y”. The ideas they represent were not new when Douglas McGregor established these twin “theories”, but he labeled them and around them articulated a philosophy with which anyone who deals with people in organizations must come to terms. In this paper, a colleague and friend of the late social scientist uses McGregor’s “classic” HBR article (p. 133) as a springboard for a retrospective on the impact of his work and life. Mr Bennis is President of the University of Cincinnati. Formerly, he was a professor at MIT and a Teacher and Administrator at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He co-edited two posthumous collections of McGregor’s writings, Leadership and Motivation and The Professional Manager. Among the books he has written in his own right are Interpersonal Dynamics, Changing Organizations and The Temporary Society. His latest book, Who Sank the Yellow Submarine? – dealing with the plight of American universities – will be published late in 1972.
This paper reused with kind permission of Harvard Business Review. ©Harvard Business Review 1972.
Personal communication quoted in my book, Organization, Development (Reading, Addison-Wesley, Massachusetts, 1969, p. 76).
Warren G. Bennis
McGregor, D. (1960), The Human Side of Enterprise, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY