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Why Theory X and Y Wasn’t So Helpful to Me

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
April 18, 2017

Back in the ’70s, I received a strong dose of McGregor’s Theory X and Y in my MPA program. Theory X and Y is still mentioned several times in Rainey’s 2014 Understanding and Managing Public Organizations, a textbook which thoroughly summarizes developments in the field of public administration.

Here’s a brief summary of Theory X and Y from Rainey’s book:

Theory X: Assumes that workers lack the capacity for self motivation and that managers must design organizations to control and direct them.

Theory Y: Assumes that workers have needs for growth, development, interesting work and self-actualization, and hence have capacity for self direction and self motivation; this should guide management practice.

In my training, the emphasis always seemed to be that we should adopt Theory Y assumptions. I was a team leader or supervisor three separate times in my federal career. Looking back, I found close supervision was still necessary in many situations and that organizations still need to maintain systems and procedures designed to control employee behavior in accordance with Theory X.

Think of systems and procedures that detect job behavior such as viewing pornography, misuse of government credit cards, theft of government resources or improper information disclosures. Such systems and procedures are necessary even if Theory Y assumptions are closer to the truth for most employees. Edward Snowden, for example, was by all accounts a superior employee who was highly motivated and very productive. But clearly, the controls in his organization were insufficient to prevent him from making a massive disclosure of classified information.

To be sure, the danger of over supervision is very real and can lead to employee unhappiness and inefficiency. You often hear employees comment negatively about perceived over supervision: “I wish he/she would just get off my back and let me do my job.”

If a supervisor has an ideal situation—highly trained and motivated employees with few behavior problems who are meeting the goals for their work group—then it would be counterproductive to adopt a close supervision, Theory X approach to these workers.

I never encountered the ideal situation.

I would suggest a broader theory of government supervision than Theory X or Y: the supervisor needs to be knowledgeable about civil service rules (and where appropriate, union rules) and have the skills to cope efficiently with a wide range of performance, behavioral, environmental and administrative issues, adjusting the closeness of supervision to the situation as appropriate.

Individual productivity varies enormously. A supervisor may have some individuals who can barely perform their jobs and need a good deal of help to ensure the work product is satisfactory. Training and coaching may prove to be ineffective. Civil service rules make it difficult if not impossible to remove a person for poor performance. I saw it happen rarely. You just have to learn to cope with weak performance and use close supervision methods as appropriate.

Sooner or a later, a supervisor will encounter behavior problems that will require close supervision. Thinking back, I either encountered directly or indirectly such issues as: personality conflicts, alcohol or drug abuse, excessive absence from work, psychological problems, theft, abuse of government credit cards, threatening language, hypercritical behavior and harassment both—sexual and non-sexual. It does no good to make assumptions about workers in general. You have to deal with the specific behavior problems that present themselves to you. Management and coworkers alike will resent a hands off approach to such problems.

A supervisor is likely to experience pressures from the environment such as increasing workloads or negative feedback from customers or stakeholders. The pressure is nearly always to increase work group output (including quality measures and compliance with rules). These pressures tend to push a supervisor toward a closer supervision style because the status quo is deemed unsatisfactory. When resources are truly inadequate, the supervisor needs the skills to be able to advocate for more resources (overtime, temporary transfers, more workers assigned, etc.). If additional resources are not available and the supervisor is unable to raise productivity with his or her own efforts, the only alternative is to learn to cope with inadequate resources by deferring less important tasks or accepting lower quality output.  

Finally, supervisors encounter a great many administrative duties that are unrelated to closeness of supervision. I’m thinking of monitoring time and leave, updating job descriptions and performance requirements, performance appraisals, approval of training plans, approval of travel, planning and monitoring work assignments plus a seemingly never ending number of meetings — with higher management, with lateral relationships, with external stakeholders and with workgroups from the ever proliferating special projects. The supervisor needs to be able to perform these tasks efficiently so there is time available for higher order activities such as training or team building.

The closeness of supervision (Theory X or Y) is an important variable for supervisors to consider, but I didn’t find it helpful to adopt one or the other theory. Sometimes close supervision is necessary and there is a lot more to supervision than the closeness issue.

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