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Theory X and Theory Y in Project Work

Team work is the preferred form of work in many organizations. Task forces and work groups are formed to achieve goals, create innovation and facilitate effective communication. With each team member bringing his or her individual strengths to the table the overall results are superior compared to those of individuals. 

In short, teams work better than lone warriors – in theory. But is this always true and for all teams? What about Theory X and Theory Y and the so-called Social Loafing as described by Douglas Murray McGregor?

Douglas Murray McGregor, management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, described the theory of X and the theory of Y in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he identified an approach of creating an environment within which employees are motivated via authoritative direction and control or integration and self-control.

The X in Team Work

This theory describes members of organizations as prone to laziness. Their goal is to avoid work. They are not intrinsically motivated but must be motivated through rewards or sanctions. Especially team work is a challenge with Theory X since the achievements of individuals become blurred during project work.
Maybe this sounds familiar to you; not all team members give their all for the team.

This behaviour is called Social Loafing. Social Loafing actually is quite common; maybe you yourself have attended meetings or telephone conferences and played a more passive part? It happens consciously or unconsciously.

Naturally, individual team members will avoid keeping away from work completely since such a behaviour will attract attention at some point. The result would be sanctions. But Theory X says that the performance of team members decreases with the size of the team.

X and Y

The Y in Team Work

This theory describes employees as highly motivated. They are ambitious, want to reach their goals, take on responsibility and are pleased about good results as well as about their own achievements. Extrinsic motivation is not important for them.

Collaborating with them makes project work easy, decisions are made quickly, responsibility is delegated effectively and ideas are created fluidly. The overall performance of the team increases with the commitment of the individual.

The X and Y Self Test

Take a close and honest look at yourself – are you an X or a Y? I see, you are a Y, maybe not always, not 10 hours a day, but still, a Y. Right.

Do you work in teams? What do you think about the other team members? Are they Y’s or X’s? Take a second and reflect on it. Some Y’s here and there, but most of the others are X’s.

In most cases employees will see themselves as Y’s and others as X’s. We tend to describe ourselves as motivated and others as less motivated.

The Consequences of X and Y

As a decision-maker or team member you will try to increase control measures and restrictions to limit negative consequences of the X’s behaviour. This policy of command and control will in turn lead to even more passiveness, less ambition and a work to rule attitude.

Proactivity and the willingness to resume responsibility will decrease. Very often, extrinsiv motivation is used as a countermeasure. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Theory X – A Self-fulfilling Prophecy.

X and Y and Z

Many people have argued that theory X and theory Y are mutually exclusive. This critique is indeed validated by reality; employees are neither 100 percent X nor 100 percent Y.

William Ouchi, an American professor and author in the field of business management at the University of Chigago, developed Theory Z. This theory states that increased participation of team members leads to increased motivation which in turn leads to increased productivity. 

In most teams there will people that tend to avoid work and those that work hard. X’s will try to calculate the effort demanded by a specific task in such a way that it can be realized in the calculated time.

Y’s will tend to miscalculate but try to compensate for their mistake by investing more time, enabling them to finish the task in the envisaged time frame.

There may be no panacea for all types and combinations of X and Y, but one thing seems certain and logical; consensus is important for teams, for the interplay between X and Y and for the overall performance of teams.

If consensus is reached the basis for effective team work is created. Not all team members need to happy about this consensus; but they must be willing to accept it.


The exception proves the rule, and there are counter examples for every theory. Employees as a whole are neither lazy nor always extrinsically motivated. The same applies to teams. Team work is more effective than working individually, but not always.

An authoritarian leadership might have a negative effect on the intrinsic motivation of Y people and subsequently on the overall result. If fear of sanctions is not applied a more cooperative, people-oriented leadership might lead X people to further reduce their effort.

This means that not only the technical skills of team members are important, but also their motivation, their X and Y.

You would not want to have a team made up only of X’s; a team of only Y’s is sadly not available. A working combination of X and Y will lead to an improved overall result in spite of individual imperfections.


[1] “The Human Side of Enterprise”, Mcgraw-Hill Publ.Comp.
[2] “Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing” by Bibb Latané, Kipling D. Williams and Stephen G. Harkins, 1979, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
[3] “Theory Z: How American management can meet the Japanese challenge”, Reprint by Avon Books



Michael Schenkel believes in useful tools, that support users in their work and that provide a common working environment for all types of roles in a project. He became a member of the microTOOL family more than fifteen years ago and took over the position of head of marketing for about half a decade. In October 2017, he moved on to a new adventure and we wish him all the best on this new path.

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