by Jerry Westbrook, PhD, FASEM, Professor Emeritus - University of Alabama at Huntsville
In the Guide to the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBOK) Domain 2 on Leadership and Organizational Management, there is a brief discussion of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Although McGregor published this concept many years ago, it is still relevant. McGregor was a Harvard professor as well as a highly sought out consultant. In his consulting work, he noticed that managers tended to make assumptions about the organization’s employees. Some of these assumptions considered that the brains of that organization was in upper management and that workers were not very bright and needed to be watched and occasionally threatened to get them to do the necessary work. McGregor called this assumption about workers Theory X. There was no data behind these assumptions; there wasn’t even anecdotal evidence or observations. It was just part of the culture of the organization.
He also worked with organizations that saw its workers in a different light. They assumed that workers wanted to do a good job, were capable of doing so, and would grow with opportunities. He called this assumption Theory Y. He noted that these assumptions were to some extent self-fulfilling prophecies. He observed that employees tend to respond in the same way they are managed. If they are considered untrustworthy, they might respond by not taking responsibilities. If management listens to its employees and responds to their ideas, these employees act like trusted members of a team.
In my career in management consulting, I witnessed many examples of Theory X assumptions. None of the organizations using this assumption could be described as successful. In good economic times, they barely got by. Several are no longer in existence. The case below relates a situation that happened at one of my clients. I had the advantage of knowing the characters in the story well and listened to their version of the events.
Ken was a scheduler in the Production Control Department (PCD) of a facility making high tech assemblies for a government contract. The company was large (about 7500 employees) with four major products being built at that time. Shop personnel began work at 7:00 AM each morning. The PCD as well as most management and support groups began work at 7:30 AM. Production was going on 24/7 on the line Ken was supporting. Ken routinely reported to work at 6:00 AM, checked the progress of the last shift, and adjusted the schedules for the incoming day shift.
One morning, an office worker was out sick, another was on travel, and a third was on vacation. In short, no one was in the PCD office. The manager of the PCD arrived at the office somewhat late at 7:45 AM and found a few other support personnel looking for someone to answer their questions on the status of some aspect of the schedule. At that very time, Ken made his way to the PCD office after having been in the plant for nearly two hours. The boss spots Ken entering the office and assumes he is getting in late (as was the boss). Trying to sound like a boss in control, he confronts Ken. The boss said, “Where have you been? Don’t you know these people need their questions answered? From now on, I want you in this office and available to work with your colleagues at 7:30 AM. Do you understand?” Ken was in shock. He was not prepared for that outburst. He simply replied “Yes, sir!” And with that, the boss went into his office and closed his door, pleased that he “took charge” of the situation. Ken immediately set about to help those who had questions that needed answers.
Ken thought about what happened and by 10 AM he knew what he had to do. From that time on, he came to work at 7:30 instead of 6 AM. He made sure that the office was adequately staffed and then wandered out into the mammoth plant and got lost. He read the morning newspaper. He talked sports with anyone available and there seemed to be no shortage of people willing to converse. He did this all day and left at 3:30 PM with the production workers instead of 4:30 PM like the others in the PCD office.
This went on for several weeks. The schedule that Ken was supposed to be working on was in chaos. Production had declined. Needed material was misplaced. Things were really screwed up. As had happened a few weeks ago, the boss came in at 7:45 AM, and Ken just had to ask. Ken asked the boss if he had noticed that he was doing things differently? The boss quickly replied: “Yes, I have noticed, and it is in the right direction. Keep up the good work!” Ken became so dispirited that he went back to his regular habits at work and smoothed out the error prone schedule.
Ken was treated as if he responded to McGregor’s Theory X assumptions about workers. His reaction was to act as if the assumption was correct. This seems to validate the observation that Theory X treatment can generate Theory X behavior.
That organization purported the belief that its employees were its most valued asset. Yet the actions of the PCD Manager were at odds with the company belief. The manager had an ingrained Theory X assumption about an employee who worked two extra hours daily without compensation. When a manager is not familiar with the duties of any employee, he or she may function with an assumption. The PCD boss made an assumption and made a poor decision regarding Ken. This decision cost the company a lot of money in reduced production and efficiency for several weeks.
In today’s business environment, Theory X may be more subtle. It occurs in restrictive organizational control systems require approvals from Managers who are not familiar with the issues of the approval. An uninformed manager is allowed to counter the judgment of knowledgeable employees who are just trying to get work done the best way. These systems restrict employees who travel for the organization. The organization does not trust its most valued contributors. That is why practices such as requiring boarding passes to be turned in with travel receipts. Telecommuting is also a contentious issue. Management wants to see its employees as they work when knowledge work is not observable. (Can we really see a knowledge worker work?)
The Theory X assumptions by management are alive and well in a broader context. Managers of knowledge workers are called on for a broader set of skills and information about each employee as well as each job. Management must create an environment at work where productive employees enjoy the freedom to produce and learn according to their abilities.
About the Author
Dr. Westbrook has served the American Society for Engineering Management in a variety of positions. He is a past President of the society, past Executive Director and an ASEM Fellow. He founded ASEM's program to certify master's degree programs that meet ASEM program standards. He was instrumental in the founding of a master’s program in EM at the University of Tennessee and the master's and Ph.D. in engineering management at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
His research and teaching focuses on behavioral concepts in management and the challenges of managing knowledge workers. Dr. Westbrook received his Ph.D. degree from Virginia Tech in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in Industrial Engineering and a B.E. from Vanderbilt in Electrical Engineering. In addition to ASEM, he is also a member of ASEE, IIE, and NSPE. Dr. Westbrook authored or co-authored 20+ refereed papers on engineering management topics. Dr. Westbrook has developed a series of seminars on managing knowledge workers. He and a team of talented professionals have delivered these seminars to a variety of clients in several states.