Management theorist Douglas McGregor stated there are two types of workers:
- Theory X: People who are lazy and inherently dislike work.
- Theory Y: People who love challenges and look forward to productive work.
I suppose there is another category somewhere in the middle. Theory X workers are generally followers, while Theory Y employees are more likely to become leaders of the organization. As a manager, you must determine in which category employees fall.
To be sure, I’m not advocating ignoring the potential of Theory X employees, but you must ensure that you are using the most effective management style when working with them. Theory Y employees, need the tools, resources, funding, and empowerment to get the work done. Once the manager does this, it’s best to get out of the way and marvel at the good work they do.
My Theory X Experience
Many years ago, I served the role of clinic administrator for an established gastroenterology surgery practice in Houston. One employee, Emma, was a veteran of the clinic, having logged more than 15 years. She was respected and trusted by the doctors. In her role in the Business Office, she collected the checks from the daily mail and applied the payments to the dates of service in Versyss, the patient management system we used.
Emma was a loyal employee, and she arrived at 7 a.m. ready for her routine. In fact, I think she followed the same process each day, taking breaks and lunch at exactly the same time. Because she came to the office early, the doctors allowed her to leave by 4 p.m., and her husband would wait for her by the building’s main entrance after she made her way down from the 23rd floor.
I began working at the medical clinic after earning my MBA, which meant I had a ton of knowledge regarding leadership theories. One of my favorites is the democratic approach, in which the manager and employees engage in decision-making via a consensus. By doing so, the employees are more likely to take ownership of their work.
For the most part, the employees appreciated the democratic management approach, and we were making progress. However, Emma was unaccustomed to providing her input. Throughout her working career, her managers had provided clear requirements, and she followed them without questioning them or considering the big picture. She worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. with one hour of lunch, and she did as she was told.
One morning around 7:30 a.m., I went to Emma’s desk, and she pointed to a yellow Post-It Note stuck to the side of her computer that read: Don’t make me think! Just tell me what to do!
The lesson from this experience is that changing an employee from Theory X to Theory Y is challenging. While I understand that it’s not impossible, it’s also not easy. It was even tougher to ask Emma to consider a different approach because she was only a year or two from retirement, and she often reminded me of this looming date.
Emma never bought into the ownership mentality, but she was a valued employee. In retrospect, I also learned the importance of having a loyal and hard-working employee.