Theory X and Theory Y

Examining people's motivation (or lack thereof) to work, Douglas McGregor, a management professor, put forward in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, a dual theory. He called this Theory X and Theory Y.

Broadly speaking Theory X denotes that individuals inherently dislike work, are inherently uncreative, see money as the only reason for work, lack the desire to improve their quality of life, see objectives as negative, wish to avoid responsibility and require orders, direct supervision and monetary motivation by management in order to achieve.[1]

McGregor argued that Theory X informed management in practice demotivated people, and put forward Theory Y as a more accurate description of people's attitudes toward work.[1]

Theory Y posits that work is natural to people, people are highly creative, find satisfaction in achieving in the workplace, are able to exercise self-discretion and self-control, hold a desire to improve their quality of life, and welcome working toward objectives. The style of management informed by Theory Y promotes giving autonomy and responsibility to workers, and that an interesting job is a powerful motivator. [1]

To read in more detail about Theory X and Theory Y, visit the Wikipedia page.

Theory X and Theory Y can be seen essentially as work-oriented conceptions of human nature. They operate on a sliding scale - for example questionnaries exist which grade where on a spectrum someone lies in preferring Theory X or Y. Despite this, they are flawed insofar as asserting two theories of human nature is still the assertion of the idea of a fixed human nature, which has long been contested by both the socialist and labour movements that argue that human nature is essentially malleable. In fact early socialists Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon, (Owen a prominent figure in the cooperative movement, which ironically contributed greatly to management science), and later Marx, believed human nature to be sculpted by the social system that humans inhabit.[2]

A workers' understanding of Theory X and Y?

A potential workers understanding of Theory X and Y, understands that they are two fixed points of reference to attitudes toward work, where Y points to the enjoyment of work for its own sake, and where X is a reaction to work under the thumb of capital. These two are in tension with each other; McGregor's goal of promoting a management style based around Theory Y is in fact a revisitation of the proposal to give workers a degree of autonomy in the production process, and draws on notions that point toward the possibility of work without wage labour. It may be possible to draw out the contradictions between Theory X and Y, showing that X is a reaction to work for pay, and for the pro-worker individual or group to show that Theory Y reflects how the job could be performed without the need for management; this could be used to distance management from the workforce and increase the relative autonomy workers enjoy, using this to reduce management's social influence within the workforce.


'Boreout' is a neologism (recently invented word) used to describe demotivation due to repetitive, uninteresting, unchallenging work. It is apparently prevalent among office workers.[1]

Boreout works like this: a boss refuses to delegate work, frustrated underlings ask for more to do but are trusted only with mind-numbing tasks. After a while they stop asking and enjoy the free time at their desk, stretching out the low-intensity tasks with a series of strategems. But mimicking work day after day erodes self-esteem. Result: the boss hurtles towards burnout while at least some of his staff edge towards boreout. The symptoms are almost identical.[3]

To read more about Boreout, see the Wikipedia page.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

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Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory first put forward by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.[4]

It can be broadly described as an ordering of people's needs with the most basic at the bottom and the most nuanced at the top. Until the more basic needs are met, the higher ones cannot be attained. Maslow argued that humans have an innate desire to work their way up the hierarchy, eventually to the goal of 'self-actualisation' - the need to develop their full potential. To read in detail about it, see the Wikipedia page.

How does Maslow's hierarchy inform management?

Maslow's ideas are influential not because they can predict behaviour, but because they recognise that behaviour is dependent on a range of needs, drives and motives. Rewards, management style and work design are all management practices that have been influenced by Maslow's ideas.[1]

Equity theory

Equity theory, as argued for by J. Stacy Adams in the 1960s, states that humans are motivated to act in situations that they perceive as unfair. It argues that the greater the perceived inequity, the stronger the motivation to act.[5][6]

To read about it in detail, see the Wikipedia page.

The implications for management that equity theory suggests, is that employees compare pay and that perceived inequity quickly generates resentment. The circulation of accurate information about rewards, the link between effort and rewards, is crucial for management, considering that when information is derived from rumour, perceptions of inequity may be generated despite little real inequity.[1]

Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states that a major flaw of equity theory is that it doesn't explain why a 'normal' feature of capitalist society - specifically the inequalities of wealth, influence and power between senior figures in the employing organisation and regular workers - isn't so easily challenged. It could be countered that actually this isn't a flaw in equity theory, and that the theory could easily be applied to systemic inequalities in a capitalist economy, driving radical trade unions and other class struggle bodies.

Expectancy theory

Expectancy theory is a theory of motivation derived from the study of the process by which outcomes become desirable (turning into motives in the process). Expectancy is a cognitive theory, and was first put forward by the psychologist Edward Tolman as a response to the behavioural theories of his contempararies. Cognitive theories assume that humans are all aware of our goals and actions.

Tolman posited that for work motivation to be high, productive work should be seen as a path to valued goals.

Expectancy theory was refined as a theory of work motivation by Victor Vroom, developing it based on three concepts: valence (the perceived value an individual has for a particular outcome, measured as 1 - positive, 0 - neutral or -1 - negative), instrumentality (the perceived probability that a good performance will lead to valued rewards, measured between 0 - no chance and 1 - certainty) and expectancy (measured between 0 - no chance and 1 - certainty).

Vroom developed a basic equation to explain this:

F = Σ(V x I x E)

In words, this means the force of an individual's motivation to work hard is the valence, multiplied by the instrumentality, multiplied by the expectancy. A strong motivating force occurs only when each of these three is strong.

Expectancy theory believes behaviour to result from conscious decision-making process based on expectations that the individual holds about different behaviours leading to performance and rewards - it assumes that behaviour is rational and that individuals are aware of their motives. It can explain individual differences in motivation and behaviour, and can measure the strength or force of the individual's motivation to behave in certain ways.[1]

To read in detail about Expectancy theory, see the Wikipedia page.

Implications of Expectancy theory for management?

Expectancy theory suggests that management needs to provide adequate training, instruction and resources to support the link between effort and performance. It also suggests that for rewards to have the desired effect, the link between performance and rewards must be clear. Rewards must be paired with instructions so that employees do not ignore instructions that aren't rewarded. For money to be motivating, it must be clearly linked to performance and be seen as equitable. Money is only one of several extrinsic rewards. Performance standards must be clear, so that employees know how to direct their efforts. Rewards that are not valued by employees, or not valued highly enough to influence behaviour, are pointless. The value different rewards are ascribed by employees may change with time and should be monitored.[1]

Implications of Expectancy theory for workers?

Expectancy theory influences the strategy of management on the question of motivation. To those looking to calm the pace of work to reach a situation more favourable for workers, it is important to realise that a reward system in the workplace is a tool implemented specifically to leverage social control over the pace of work (as seen in the Hawthorne Studies) out of the hands of the workforce.

Goal-setting theory

Expanding on this theme of reward systems, leads to a necessary examination of a set of management techniques called 'goal setting'. Edwin Locke, an American organisational psychologist, Ayn Rand Institute affiliate and pioneer in goal-setting theory, argued in 1968 that 'goal-setting is more appropriately viewed as a motivational technique rather than a formal theory'.[7][1]

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, professor of organisational behaviour and Human Resources management, argued in 1990 that goal-setting theory should concentrate on five points:

  • Goal difficulty: set goals for performance at levels which will stretch employees, but which are not beyond their ability levels.
  • Goal specificity: express goals in clear and precise language, if possible in quantifiable terms and avoid setting vague and ambiguous goals. Goals should be SMART: specific, attainable, realistic and time-related.
  • Participation: allow employees to take part in the goal-setting process to increase the acceptability of, and their commitment to, goals.
  • Acceptance: if goals are set by management, ensure that they are adequately explained and justified, so that those concerned understand and accept them.
  • Feedback: provide information on the results of past performance to allow employees to adjust their behaviour, if necessary, to improve future performance.[8][1]

To read in detail about Goal-setting theory, see the Wikipedia page.

Inner work life theory

Inner work life theory is a modern (published in 2007, read the full paper here) theory of motivation that argues that individual behaviour and work performance are governed by how our perceptions, motives and emotions interplay, as triggered by daily events.[9][1]

It is different from earlier theories of motivation in that it gives private thoughts and feelings a central role, and stresses that while management often ignores them, they actually matter a great deal and that they address 'the very pragmatic managerial question of how these dynamics affect work performance'.[9] It contrasts a great deal to Taylor's theories of motivation, explored in the next sub-heading.

Method of research

The method of research used to uncover the principles behind Inner work life theory is interesting, particularly to those familiar with the use of workers' inquiry. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer used 238 professionals from 26 project teams and had them complete daily diary entries in a standardised format for the duration of their projects. 12,000 diary entries were then analysed to reveal what they called 'The Reality Management Never Sees'.[9]

A detailed inspection of the study

An example of the style of management Inner work life theory believes to be effective are compassionate. The paper promotes instances like a high-level executive delivering bottled water and pizza, suggesting it sends a positive signal to workers. It suggests that if people are happy and excited about their work, and feel that it is valued by others, their motivation will be stronger. Also emphasised is the beneficial effect that a clear perception of what constitutes progress has on motivation. Despite the pizza example, the research indicated that 'the most important managerial behaviours don't involve giving people daily pats on the back or attempting to inject lighthearted fun into the workplace.'[9] Instead, two key items were identified: 'enabling people to move forward in their work and treating them decently as human beings.'[9]

The study also shows a level of conflict between the team and upper-level management, showing diary entries that use terms such as 'boneheaded' and 'bigoted bunch of plantation owners' to describe senior management. It stresses that emotions such as sadness, anger and disgust were triggered by perceptions of the senior management as aloof and oblivious to the team's good work, and that this 'negative inner work life' impacted performance greatly.


Enabling progress

The four key points the paper encourages managers to take on board with respect to enabling people to move forward with their work are as follows:

  • Provide direct help and not get in the way
  • Make sure that time and other resources are adequate
  • React to successes and failures with a learning orientation
  • Set clear and unambiguous goals (as goal-setting theory suggests)[1]

Managing with 'a human touch'

Praise without real work progress has little positive impact on people's inner work lives and could arouse cynicism. Good work progress without any recognition - or worse, with criticism about trivial issues - could arouse anger and sadness. The best boosts to inner work life were instances in which good work was appropriately recognised by management. Again stressing the pragmatic use of compassion, the paper concludes by saying 'People deserve happiness. They deserve dignity and respect. When we act on that realization, it is not only good for business. It affirms our value as human beings.'[9]

A workers' use of the Inner work life theory

Inner work life theory is useful insofar as it is one of the few theories that takes account of emotions and perceptions. Its nature as a theory derived from people's private thoughts, as written in diary entries, is interestingly subjective, and forms theory from intimately private pictures in which people are treated as people. It shows that motivation is derived from the interplay between emotions, and suggests a more human picture of how motivation occurs. The closest and most intimately personal theory that has originated from the workers' movement, as opposed to management research, would perhaps be Recomposition's series on dreams.

Taylorist theories of motivation

The Inner work life theory can only be understood as a relatively advanced theory if the earlier, more nakedly ruling class, theories are understood. It should be stressed that this doesn't make the Inner work life theory any less of a pragmatic managerial strategy designed to increase the pace of workplace exploitation, just that it is more effective at doing so than Taylorist theories whose naked capitalist bent distorts their supposedly objective scientific outlook.

Frederick Winslow Taylor took what he called a 'scientific management' approach. Taylor took a four-pronged approach to designing jobs:

  • Set the optimum degree of task fragmentation, breaking complex jobs into set of simple steps.
  • Decide the one best way to perform the work, through studies to discover the most effective method for doing each step, including workplace layout and design of tools.
  • Train employees to carry out these simple fragmented tasks in the manner specified.
  • Reward employees financially for meeting performance targets.[1]

Task fragmentation has a series of advantages. For a start workers don't need expensive training, unskilled work is cheaper, repetition of small specialised tasks tends to make employees very proficient at them, and performance is easier to control. However, it also has its disadvantages. Repetitive work is boring, the individual's contribution to the organisation is meaningless; these lead to apathy and dissatisfaction amongst the workforce. Furthermore, the employee fails to develop skills that might lead to promotion.[1]

Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan describes Taylor's approaches as giving a semblance of logic and efficiency, but actually failing to stimulate motivation or improve performance. Taylor held a typically ruling class view of workers, and this transferred onto his view of human motivation. He claimed lower-level employees to be 'coin-operated', arguing that rewards for working as instructed should be strictly financial. Huczynski and Buchanan describe his methods as likely to encourage absenteeism and sabotage rather than commitment and flexibility. It is this that leads managers to be interested in other theories of motivation in order to uncover alternatives for encouraging high performance in the workplace.

See the video below for a summary of theories of motivation, in particular how the Taylorist and Theory X position that workers are solely monetarily motivated are flawed.

The Quality of Work Life movement

The Quality of Work Life movement (QWL) was a joint labour-management and social science initiative focused on worker participation in managerial structures and focusing on improving the lives of workers, both in respect to pay and the work itself. A workers' perspective of it might hold it to be product of social democracy in the 1970s, with key theoretical components first formulated in the late 1960s at the height of international post-war class struggle in the search for ways to de-escalate it. It played a key role in mediating worker demands for better pay and even the far more radical demand for worker control of the workplace itself. In the US, the QWL movement was exemplified by Stanley Lundine, Mayor of Jamestown from 1970 to 1976, who 'brought together the city’s management and labor leaders to form a joint committee that set up QWL programs in a dozen area companies'.[10] Eventually Lundine was so impressed by the results of the QWL projects that as a congressional representative, he initiated a labour-management cooperation bill, which became law as part of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act.[10] Social scientist Dr. Michael Mac-coby, an architect of an important QWL project, showed the kind of thinking that strongly distanced the QWL movement from earlier Taylorist managerial thinking: "Most people want to do a good job and resent being treated as if they lack the ability to think and understand the legitimate problems of a business. In turn, most managers are not hard-hearted but rather fearful that if they let down their guard, unions and workers will push them around."[10]

The QWL movement in the 1970s aimed to reduce costs of absenteeism and turnover and to increase productivity. It also aimed to increase the autonomy enjoyed by workers to improve the quality of work experience and job satisfaction, focusing on repetitive manual and office work. It had little impact on management roles, and used a 'quick fix' approach toward troublesome groups, and saw most employees as broadly wanting the same kinds of things from work.[1]

Frederick Herzberg developed the concept of job enrichment in 1966 and 1968, which was to become a key component of QWL. Job enrichment entails a technique for broadening the experience of work and enhancing employee need satisfaction and to improve motivation and performance.[1] Where the QWL movement and Herzberg tie into theories of motivation is in his formulation of two-factor theory.

Two-factor theory

Two-factor theory is related to Maslow's theory of motivation, and was devised by Herzberg. The theory states that there are two sets of factors; 'motivator factors' (aspects of work which lead to high levels of satisfaction, motivation and performance) and 'hygiene factors' (aspects of work which remove dissatisfaction). Herzberg's theory parallels Maslow's idea of a need hierarchy, and distributes needs between these two sets. Motivator factors include: achievement, advancement, growth, recognition, responsibility and the work itself. Hygiene factors include: pay, company policy, supervisory style, status, security and working conditions. Herzberg's method of formulating his theory took the form of interviews with 203 engineers and accountants in the Pittsburgh area.[11] Herzberg described hygiene factors as the main cause of dissatisfaction in the workplace, and that for managers to eliminate dissatisfaction, hygiene factors must be eliminated. However, this is only one half of the two-factor theory. Motivation factors are what leads an employee to achieve a high degree of performance in the workplace, and these must be met in order for workers to want to perform work related actions (identifiably different from having to perform a work related action). Herzberg's theories are different from Maslow's in that Herzberg provided substantial empirical evidence to support his theory.

Herzberg suggested the use of what he termed vertical loading factors to achieve job enrichment.These are methods for improving motivation through the use of providing feedback, new tasks, natural work units, special assignments and additional authority. Herzberg distinguished between two types of rewards, intrinsic rewards (valued outcomes within the control of the individual, such as feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment), and extrinsic rewards (valued outcomes controlled by others, such as recognition, promotion or pay increases).[1]

A workers' use of two factor theory

Two factor theory can be viewed as an essential topic for collectivising workplace grievances and using them to drive organising activity in the workplace. Hygiene factors specifically outline where dissatisfaction arises from; pay, company policy, supervisory style, status, security and working conditions. If any of these factors are off for at least a few members of the workforce, there is serious scope for the collectivisation of a grievance and bringing it against management. Motivator factors are perhaps not so easy to form a grievance over; achievement, advancement, growth, recognition, responsibility and the work itself, all of these are relatively individual factors, but perhaps there is still scope.

The Job Characteristics Model

The Job Characteristics Model is a model pieced together by expectancy theorists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham, a professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and professor of Business respectively. It suggests that jobs can be analysed by examining five core dimensions:[1]

  • Skill variety: the extent to which different skills and abilities are made use of by a job.
  • Task identity: the extent to which a meaningful piece of work is involved by a job
  • Task significance: the extent to which a job affects the work of others
  • Autonomy: the extent to which a job provides independence and discretion
  • Feedback: the extent to which performance information is related back to the individual

The model also developed the concept of the growth need strength, a measure of the readiness and capability of an individual to respond positively to job enrichment, based on Maslow's concept of self-actualisation. In this concept, an individual with a low growth need strength is unlikely to improve their performance even in an enriched job.

Job diagnostic surveys

Richard Hackman developed an opinion questionnaire termed the job diagnostic survey. It was developed to provide operational definitions of the variables in the Job Characteristics model. Core job dimensions are independent variables and critical psychological states and performance outcomes are dependent variables. In the causal chain, growth need strength is a mediating variable.[1]

Job diagnostic surveys can be used to calculate what is called a Motivating potential score from workers in the same workplace. The MPS is calculated as follows:

MPS = ((skill variety + task identity + task significance)/3) x autonomy x feedback

The five Core dimensions stimulate three psychological states critical to high work motivation, job satisfaction and performance.[1] These are:

  • experienced meaningfulness: the extent to which the individual considers the work to be meaningful, valuable and worthwhile
  • experienced responsibility: the extent to which an individual feels accountable for their work output
  • knowledge of results: the extent to which an individual knows and understands how well they are performing[1]

Vertical loading

The Job Characteristics Model shows how the motivating potential of jobs can be improved by applying five implementing concepts. These are:

  1. Combine tasks. Make sure employees have more than one task to do. It increases variety and allows the individual to make a greater contribution. This is contrary to the Taylorist task fragmentation which sees individuals only perform one task.
  2. Form natural work units. To increase individual contribution and task significance, give employees meaningful patterns of work. Again contrary to Taylorist task fragmentation.
  3. Establish client relationships. Give workers responsibility for personal contacts. This increases variety, gives the person freedom in performing work and increases feedback.
  4. Vertical loading. Give employees responsibilities usually allocated to supervisors.
  5. Open feedback channels. Feedback tells people how well they are doing and provides a basis for improvement, so give employees performance summaries and corporate information.

High performance work systems

During the 1990s many organisations reconsidered job enrichment through what they termed employee empowerment, later refined in a related concept in the twenty first century as employee engagement. Techniques for improving worker motivation and performance through empowerment and engagement fall into two categories: individual job enrichment and self-managing/autonomous teamwork. These approaches are mixed together to form what is termed the high performance work system. High performance work systems are similar to the Quality of work life approaches, but with a few marked differences. High performance work systems aim to improve organisational flexibility, use empowerment and engagement to improve skill, decision-making and adaptability, focus on challenging work, redefine management roles, take time to change attitudes and behaviour and need to cater for a wide range of individual differences in interests and expectations.[1]

1. Buchanan, David A, and Andrzej Huczynski. 2010. Organizational Behaviour. Harlow, England: Financial Times Prentice Hall.
2. Brooks, Arthur, and Peter Wehner. 2010. 'Human Nature And Capitalism'. AEI.
3. Boyes, Roger. 2015. 'Forget Burnout, Boreout Is The New Office Disease'. The Times.
4. Maslow, A. H. 1943. 'A Theory Of Human Motivation.'. Psychological Review 50 (4): 370-396. doi:10.1037/h0054346.
5. Adams, J.S. 1963. 'Toward An Understanding Of Inequity'. Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology 4 (67): pp. 422-36.
6. Berkowitz, Leonard. 1967. Advances In Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.
7. Locke, Edwin A. 1968. 'Toward A Theory Of Task Motivation And Incentives'. Organizational Behavior And Human Performance 3 (2): 157-189. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(68)90004-4.
8. Locke, Edwin A, and Gary P Latham. 1990. A Theory Of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
9. Teresa, Amabile, and Kramer Steven. 2007. 'Inner Work Life: Understanding The Subtext Of Business Performance'. Harvard Business Review.
10. Deborah, Cohen. 1979. 'The Quality Of Work Life Movement'. Training Magazine.
11. Herzberg, Frederick. 1964. 'The Motivation-Hygiene Concept and Problems of Manpower'. Personnel Administrator 27 (3–7).