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Executive Leadership Style: Douglas MacGregor’s Theory

Updated on April 13, 2014
Dr Jerry Allison profile image

Dr Jerry is an associate professor at the Tillman School of Business at University of Mount Olive teaching management and analytics courses.

Douglas MacGregor
Douglas MacGregor

There are many views and philosophies on leadership and management. Some of these are grounded in research and academic theory, some are determined by emotion and feeling. Major research into management practices began in the twentieth century with one of the most notable findings coming in the 1960s from Douglas MacGregor. This article examines his theory of how managers view workers.

MacGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise hypothesized there were only two ways managers could view employees. Labelling these ways as Theory X and Theory Y, he believed that each manager adopted one of these theories based on personal viewpoints regarding human nature and the relationship of that nature to leadership style. Each of these theories have some basic tenets that define a manager’s attitude toward employees. These tenets are presented in the following paragraphs.

Theory X

MacGregor’s first theory takes a pessimistic view of workers. The theory is based on three assumptions made by managers about employees. These assumptions then lead the manager to adopt a more authoritarian management style, directing and controlling work rather than understanding the people doing the work. What follows is an examination of these three assumptions.

The first assumption made by managers utilizing Theory X is that people in general have an aversion to work and will do what is in their power to avoid it. The concept behind this assumption is that individuals only need a job in order to take care of some need such as paying the rent. If the employee does not have the need that requires the job, then the theory states the employee would leave the job immediately. Because the employee performs the job only to fulfill a need, then there are subsequent behaviors (or lack of behaviors) that result. This leads to the second assumption.

Theory X states the second assumption managers make is workers need to be dominated, controlled in every relevant way. This assumption stems from the belief that since employees only work because they must, then their behavior at work is going to be self-serving to the point of doing the minimal amount of labor necessary. Thus, to compensate for the employee’s unwillingness to work, managers must be authoritarian and ensure that the employees provide the function for which they were hired. This domination by the manager then naturally evokes a response from the worker. That is the nature of the third assumption.

The third and final assumption made by Theory X managers about workers is the typical worker has no desire for autonomy, preferring security instead. This assumption looks at workers as desiring to be controlled and told what to do. The lack of desire of any responsibility is also a characteristic of workers in this view. These employees prefer an environment in which they do not have to make any decisions and are, consequently, shielded from any consequences of decision-making.

Under these three Theory X assumptions, managers then adopt a leadership style that is authoritarian, not just because workers do not wish to work hard but also because the workers desire a responsibility-free work environment. As a result, the manager then decides every aspect of the work environment.

Theory Y

MacGregor’s second theory about how managers view employees was called Theory Y. Compared to Theory X, Theory Y is radically different, but having a similar basis for how many managers view workers today. Being a much more person-oriented philosophy, Theory Y is also based on three assumptions, each contradictory to the assumptions made by Theory X.

The first of these assumptions is that workers are willing to accept work as a part of life and do not view it as a necessary evil. Managers adopting this assumption look at employees more as participants in the organization rather than obstacles. The result of this assumption implies that employees’ attitudes are completely different from the Theory X assumptions. This change leads then to the second assumption.

Once a manager believes the first Theory Y assumption, MacGregor then proposed that a manager would make the second assumption: workers will express some form of commitment to the organization. This commitment could take the form of demonstrating responsibility to do the work required as well as accepting and furthering common organizational goals. This commitment then leads to the third assumption.

Theory Y managers now make the third assumption that employees, under the proper conditions, will seek out responsibility independently and become productive workers in the organization. This assumption believes that employees bring all their skills to the table, including problem-solving skills and goal-setting skills. It is at this point the worker becomes not just a part of the organization but a partner in its operation.


MacGregor’s two theories of management shed a great deal of light on how managers view workers. While any given manager’s thinking may not be Theory X or Theory Y in its entirety, there are elements that each person can see within themselves. Because of this, MacGregor revolutionized understanding into how managers think.


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    • Dr Jerry Allison profile image

      Jerry Allison 4 years ago from Mount Olive, NC

      Thank you very much!

    • Melinda Longoria profile image

      Melinda Longoria, MSM 4 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Also voted up & sharing on my Management101 Facebook fanpage:

    • Melinda Longoria profile image

      Melinda Longoria, MSM 4 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Great article on Douglas MacGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y describing how each manager has human nature viewpoints which help him or her to adopt one of these theories. Thank you for sharing this information. Sincerely, Mel