Author Profile Picture

Matt Somers

Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training

Founder & Managing Partner

Read more from Matt Somers

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Management, coaching and self-fulfilling prophecies

Matt Somers delves into Douglas McGregor’s theories on human work motivation and management.
a planetary object in the sky with stars. Theory

Of all the classic management theories, I’ve always found that Douglas McGregor's ground-breaking work on Theory X and Theory Y provides perhaps the best insight into contrasting views on employee behaviour. In this article, I want to dive deeper into the characteristics and implications of both theories and consider how they shape managerial approaches and influence organizational culture.

Theory X: The pessimist’s view

According to McGregor, Theory X managers subscribe to a pessimistic perspective of employee behaviour, assuming that individuals inherently dislike work and are primarily motivated by financial incentives or fear. This view suggests that employees require strict discipline, constant supervision, and detailed task instructions to ensure productivity. Trust is minimal, and the belief is that employees will actively avoid responsibility, and lack loyalty, commitment, and creativity. Managers adhering to Theory X are therefore likely to implement tight controls, rigorous reporting procedures, and detailed task prescriptions to monitor employee activities closely.  We saw an explosion of this during the pandemic with many managers inclined to ask their now remote employees “What are you doing?” before remembering to ask. “How are you doing?” Reminders of the organisation's role in providing employment and the ease with which employees can be replaced can be widespread. The managerial approach under Theory X tends to stifle creativity and innovation, leading to a work environment marked by reluctant compliance rather than willing commitment.

Theory X: Employees’ reaction

How might we expect people to react to being managed this way? Predictably, employees subjected to Theory X management are likely to respond defensively. They may limit their efforts to the minimum required, resist change, and be hesitant to take on additional responsibilities without an uplift in financial rewards. Requests to work more flexibly to meet operational demands are often met with resistance, and the overall work atmosphere becomes characterised by a lack of enthusiasm and creativity. Managing on the assumption that Theory X is true seems to generate Theory X behaviour. Not good.

Theory Y: The optimist’s view

In contrast, Theory Y managers embrace a more optimistic perspective, believing that employees are motivated by a range of psychological and economic factors beyond mere monetary rewards or fear. According to Theory Y, individuals seek achievement, recognition and praise, and they are inherently trustworthy, responsible and creative. Managers subscribing to this view encourage loyalty, commitment, and tend to see their people as valuable contributors to the organisation. Managers taking a Theory Y approach adopt a more empowering and participative leadership style. They provide praise and encouragement, publicly acknowledge employees' efforts, and involve the team in decision-making processes. Setting broad objectives and allowing the team autonomy to achieve them becomes the norm, fostering an environment conducive to creativity, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

Theory Y: Employees’ reaction

How might we expect people to react to being managed this way? Under Theory Y management, employees tend to reciprocate positively. They are more likely to exceed expectations, willingly contribute their best efforts, and embrace additional responsibilities. Loyalty is cultivated, and employees become more adaptable to change, fostering a workplace culture that values collaboration and creativity. Managing on the assumption that Theory Y is true seems to generate Theory Y behaviour. Great!

Most managers use a blend

While the theories present two extremes, most managers likely embody a blend of Theory X and Theory Y traits. Their perspectives will likely evolve based on organisational politics, external pressures, and their individual experiences. A crucial question becomes: Which view, if any, is more beneficial for managers and leaders keen to adopt the coaching approach?

Exploring the self-fulfilling prophecy

I suggest that Theory Y offers a more beneficial framework for achieving improved results due to the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy. As seen with Theory X, when individuals are treated according to certain beliefs, their behaviour tends to align with those expectations. Similarly, Theory Y illustrates that when employees are treated with trust, encouragement, and autonomy, they are more likely to fulfil these positive expectations.

The role of managers as coaches

Managers engaged in coaching can leverage Theory Y principles to foster a positive work environment that nurtures growth and development. Coaching inherently involves guiding individuals toward achieving their full potential, and a Theory Y approach aligns well with this objective. By providing constructive feedback, acknowledging achievements, and involving employees in decision-making processes, managers can create a supportive and empowering atmosphere. In conclusion, it is the gap between Theory X and Theory Y that sheds light on contrasting managerial perspectives and their implications on workplace dynamics. While both views have their merits, the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy suggests that a Theory Y approach, emphasising trust, empowerment, and recognition, can lead to more positive outcomes.  Managers, particularly those with coaching roles, should carefully consider their leadership style and its impact on employee behaviour, aiming to create a work environment that fosters collaboration, and innovation, and will lead to sustainable success Interested in this topic? Unlocking personal growth: Six lessons from Method Acting  

Author Profile Picture
Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Partner

Read more from Matt Somers

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!