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January 22, 2003
Theory X Theory Y

One of the great managerial fashions of the eighties was the book In Search of Excellence, which was about how to get companies to do well and make lots of money, by doing a bit more than just make money. The "senior" author was Tom Peters, whom it is now as unfashionable to admire as it was once fashionable. I still quite admire the man, and believe that his triviality as a thinker and writer about management is now exaggerated. But I have also enjoyed reading stuff by the "other" writer of In Search of Excellence, Robert H. Waterman Jnr., who is a more calm and down-to-earth sort of a character, and who is now growing old rather more gracefully. So when I saw a later book by him in my local Oxfam shop on sale at £3 I gave it a go. And indeed, it is quite good.

One of the core concepts of books like these (this one is called The Frontiers of Excellence well, it had to be called something) is the contrast between Theory X management and Theory Y management. Waterman recycles this concept yet again, and this is the version of it that he offers:

This is Theory X:

Most of us have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if at all possible.

We need to be directed, want to avoid responsibility, have relatively little ambition, and want security above all.

We need, therefore, to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment if we're to put forward adequate effort.

And this is Theory Y:

Putting forth physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

Most humans don't inherently dislike work, though they are often placed in jobs that give them plenty of cause for unhappiness.

External control and threat of punishment are not the only means of getting us to work.

Commitment to objectives is directly related to the rewards attached to achieving those objectives; the most important reward: satisfaction of our own ego needs.

Under favourable conditions most of us learn not only to accept, but to seek, responsibility.

The capacity to enact a fairly high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

All of this was first spelt out to the big wide world by Douglas McGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960, and notions like these had been doing the rounds in management theory circles since at least World War 2, not least as a result of the productivity miracles that had been lucked into by America during that same war. The men who would normally have been bossing them around being absent fighting the war, American simply had to trust the most unpromising looking and most second class of their citizens (such as women and negroes) to get the industrial job done, and surprise, surprise they did it.

Do I have to spell out how this Theory X/Theory Y contrast applies to education, and to our assumptions about the nature of childhood motivations? Surely not.

That's it, that's this posting, pretty much finished. But I'll just add one big point in a very few more words. It's one thing to accept the truth of Theory Y; quite another to apply it successfully, and without creating new and improved versions of Theory X torments for your underlings. And it is especially difficult to apply it in circumstances where Theory X has been ruling the roost without apology for the previous few decades, as Robert Waterman makes very clear. Which might explain why many and probably most schools nowadays are no nearer to doing Theory Y than they were half a century ago. Nevertheless, as a statement of the sort of world that a lot us now want for children, for the way they work and the way they learn, it still does very nicely, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 AM
Category: Compulsion
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