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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Are you Theory X or Y?

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Colin Powell

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” George Bernard Shaw

Which best represents your view? Do you think that people take great satisfaction in their jobs, or do you believe that they view it as a burden and something that they must get through just to get paid?

What does your organization think about its employees? Do they believe that people are high achievers that just need infrastructure and freedom to achieve? Or do they believe that every aspect of their job must be managed, controlled and approved?

For the Project Manager, this is a crucial piece of information that will shape how they deliver their project!

A bit of history.

After World War II, science became very interested management and manufacturing, and many of the household names that we all learned about (Juran, Deming, Ishikawa and Maslow to name a few) studied and authored books that are still referenced today (look for them on your PMP Exam!). Douglas McGregor was a management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is one of those greats.

In his book The Human Side of Enterprise, he introduced two broad schools of thought about how to motivate and manage people. Theory X said that people had very little motivation and disliked their work, while Theory Y stated that people do take pride in their work and see it as a welcome challenge.

Most organizations and management styles are built (even if subconsciously) around one of these theories, and it has a profound impact on the organization itself. So how does a Theory X organization “feel”?

Easy! Think of a big bureaucracy like your local DMV. People must be controlled! Every aspect of their jobs should be documented, every hour of their day (including how to report their time) must be described in excruciating detail! Individual judgement is frowned upon as detailed processes must be followed, and each level of management should be consulted based on predetermined criteria. Promotion is tightly controlled, and individual achievement is hard to recognize.

This is a traditional top down structure, and aspects of it have their place! Thinking of the abovementioned DMV, you must have standards in place when issuing drivers licenses, titles for vehicles, registrations, etc. Those standards lead to guidelines, which lead to procedures, which eventually take you to a Theory X organization! This environment certainly impacts how the Project Manager will operate. They must make sure that they embrace and understand the hierarchy so their Project Plan can take advantage of the structure to deliver the project!

So how does a Theory Y organization “feel”? Control is decentralized, and employees are trusted to make day to day decisions, solve problems and do their work in the way the feel is most effective. This is your entrepreneurial organization! Everyone is on the same team! Everyone is pulling in the same direction and is empowered to do what they need to do to get the job done!

As a seasoned executive, I can tell you that this is the hardest model to maintain over time. As organizations get larger they need more structure. And that structure can, over time, create an organization that "feels" Theory X. Even if that isn't what management intended.

But if you are a Project Manager in a Theory Y organization, you must adapt and bring structure to your Project Plan!

Organizations do reflect the characteristics of either Theory X or Y.

For people, it's not a binary choice. People are people – good and bad. The trick is create an environment where high achievers can achieve, and low achievers are either run off or there is enough structure to allow them to contribute without exposing the organization to unnecessary risk.

But the good Project Manager must adapt!


I am an avid boater and I like to take spend the weekends exploring the many great marinas of the Chesapeake Bay. I went to Annapolis for their annual fall boat show, and found myself in a very nice marina that had an uncommonly narrow fairway. The fairway was (I later checked) 54 feet wide, and my boat is 48 feet long – a tight fit! But I got docked with no issue. Later in the day I was sitting on the bow enjoying the afternoon when the boat across the fairway began to prepare to depart. It was big, expensive, new and was captained by an older gentleman with all the right gear. I immediately assumed that this was a skilled captain and was looking forward to watching him navigate the tight fairway. Much to my surprise, he had no idea what he was doing and was immediately caught in the relatively stiff wind and began to drift into my boat! I rushed to the bow and made sure I could push him off, and soon he had it under control and was on his way. Just because someone looks the part, don’t assume they know what they are doing!


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