A Critical Appraisal of the Motivational Theories X, Y and Z Essay

Critical Appraisal of the Motivational Theories X, Y and Z

Motivation in simple words is a drive, which enables a person in accomplishment of a specified task in a befitting manner. In psychological terms, motivation is the purpose for striving towards a goal. It forces a person to adopt a required behaviour that will ultimately guide and lead the person to the goal. This drive can be stimulated internally or influenced by some outside factors. However it is not that simple as it seems. Recent studies have depicted that humans tend to seek sensory stimulation, even without any anticipated goal. Various tools like brain scanning have been developed of late, which can illustrate neurological basis for motivation (“Motivation-1” 2003, par. 1).

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Work organisations are under a constant scrutiny and have undergone a profound development in last three decades. Organisational behaviour and structural-functionalist framing have remained the focal point of most studies (Silverman 1970, pp. 88-91). In the world of business, a major contributory factor towards organisational effectiveness as recognised by most theorists is the motivation. Motivated workforce helps organizations in achieving their tactical and strategic goals effectively. The biggest challenge faced by human resource managers now a days is to keep all employees motivated specially in a diverse environment. The importance of motivation can not be ignored at any level. This essay has therefore been designed to take account of the motivational theories. The essay will first highlight importance of motivation followed by few important motivational theories and will then scrutinize motivational theories X, Y and Z, while identifying major fundamental differences between them.

Importance of Motivation

Keeping the workforce motivated is not only important for getting the best out of employees but it also generates job satisfaction amongst employees thereby reducing the employee turnovers. Every organization regards workforce morale and workplace environment as the top two priorities. It has been established through research that increased workforce motivation results in increased productivity. Motivated employees come out with unique ideas to increase sales and expand businesses.  The benefits of keeping the workforce motivated are enormous. Besides reducing turnovers and decreasing absenteeism, it helps in solving the problems as well (Precht 2006, par 1). Importance of motivation in the corporate sector can not be ignored. When people are not motivated to work, they will have less energy, they will be more resistant to changes, and will less likely to be making any suggestions in improvements or take that extra step to keep customers coming back.

Important Theories of Motivation

Motivation is basically the reason for doing anything. It is the driving force behind all actions of human beings, animals, and even lower organisms (“Motivation-2,” 2005, par. 1). Various theories have evolved over the period of time that adequately explain the process of motivation and work behaviour (Rose 1988, p. 25). There is in fact a jungle of theories of motivation. What ever the approach being adopted to give meanings to the word motivation, it in any case is the art of helping people to focus their minds and energies on doing their work as effectively as possible (Gellerman 2002, p. 3).

A critical appraisal of the motivational theories that focuses on the labels people use to identify thoughts, emotions, dispositions, and behaviours, traces its roots to the information processing approach to learning. The cognitive dissonance theory developed by Leon Festinger states that when there is a discrepancy between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, we will act to resolve conflict and discrepancies. Another cognitive approach is the attribution theory which proposes that every person tries to justify success or failure of self and others by crediting (or discrediting) it to either internal or external drives. Freud (1990, pp. 1-3) however described the changes in behaviour as a result of internal, biological instincts that are classified into life and death.

Abraham Maslow is considered to be the leading researcher in the field of behavioural changes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs stresses on satisfying each lower need before moving to the next higher level (“Abraham Maslow” 2005, pars. 1-3). Another major motivational theory is the social cognition theory which suggests reciprocal determination as a primary factor in both learning and motivation (Huitt 2006, par. 7).

Then there are ‘Theory X and Theory Y.’ These theories of human motivation were developed by Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s (“Theory X and theory Y” 2006, pars. 1-3). These two theories describe two opposite attitudes toward workforce motivation. The theory X assumes that employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work as long as possible. Whereas theory Y dictates that people are ambitious and accept responsibility to their best. McGregor professes that throughout the world of business either of the two theories are applied by the management to get the work done from the employees.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many United States industries started facing tough competition in international markets and eventually started losing market share to international competitors, particularly Japanese companies. The US failure to compete with Japanese companies raised lot of concerns which led to comparative studies of the management practices in both the countries. In this backdrop, theory Z emerged which laid emphasis on group decision making, informal and democratic relationships based on trust.



Theory X Assumptions

The traditional assumptions about the nature of people in light of Theory X, according to McGregor (1960), are as following:

Average human beings have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if they can.
Because of this human characteristic of disliking the work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organisational objectives.
Average human beings prefer to be directed, wish to avoid responsibility, have relatively little ambition, and want security above all.
Theory Y Assumptions

The assumptions under Theory Y, as viewed by McGregor (1960), are described as following:

·         The expenditure of physical effort and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

·         External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for producing effort toward organisational objectives. People will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which they are committed.

·          The degree of commitment to objectives is in proportion to the size of the rewards associated with their achievement.

·         Average human beings learn, under proper conditions, not only to accept responsibility but also to seek it.

·         The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of the organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

·         Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.

Explanation of Theory Z

Theory Z is an amalgamation of Japanese style of management into American system. It was though hinted by McGregor but was first identified and developed as a unique management approach by Professor William Ouchi (1981). Since, it was a fusion of two different management practices, Professor Ouchi argued that this emerging management philosophy would allow organizations to enjoy many of the advantages of both the systems. The primary features of Theory Z are:

Long Term Employment. Theory Z advocates organizations to make life-long commitments to their employees and expect loyalty in return. This promotes stability in the organization and job security among employees.
Consensual Decision Making. Theory Z emphasizes on communication, collaboration, and consensus in decision making.
Individual Responsibility. It retains the emphasis on individual contributions that is the characteristic of most American firms by recognizing individual achievements.
Slow Evaluation and Promotion. It advocates an evaluation process and promotions with greater intervals.
Informal Control with Formalized Measures. The Theory Z relies on informal methods of control, but does measure performance through formal mechanisms.
Moderately Specialized Career Path. It adopts a middle posture, with career paths that are less specialized than the traditional U.S. model but more specialized than the traditional Japanese model.
Holistic Concern. Theory Z is characterized by concern for employees that goes beyond the workplace.
Analysis of the Theories X, Y and Z

Theory X and Y have different sets of assumptions which are fundamentally different from each other. Theory X is pessimistic, static and rigid. Control is primarily external, that is, imposed on the subordinate by the superior. In contrast, theory Y is optimistic, dynamic, and flexible, with an emphasis on self-direction and the integration of the individual needs with organisational demands.

An important aspect of Theory X and Y is that they are only the assumptions. They are not the prescriptions or suggestions for managerial strategies. Moreover, these assumptions are not based on research. Moreover, McGregor (1960) further clarified that these theories do not imply ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ management. The ‘hard’ approach may produce resistance and antagonism whereas the ‘soft’ approach may result in laissez-faire management which is not congruent with the Theory Y. It should also be remembered that Theory X and Y are not on opposite extremes and should not be viewed on a continuous scale.

Theory Z signifies a humanistic approach to the management practices. Although, the theory Z originates from the Japanese management principles, yet it incorporates many American managements practices as well. We can thus call it a hybrid hybrid management approach combining Japanese management philosophies with U.S. culture.

We can differentiate Theory Z from Theory Y in terms of the psychological perspective. Theory Y focuses on the individual relationship between the employer and the employee whereas, Theory Z extends this relationships to the whole of the organization. Another fundamental difference between the Theory Z and the McGregor Theories (X and Y) is that the Theory Z relies heavy on the consensual decision making, whereas Theory X and Y do not make nay mention of that. Moreover, Theory Z advocates that motivational level has nothing to do with the personality of the people rather the people work best toward goals which they have helped establish.

In nut shell, Theory Z professes a corporate philosophy and corporate values based managerial actions. Against the concepts of theories X and Y, in theory Z, people are seen as whole human beings, not simply as factors in production. A long term relationship is propagated in theory Z, which creates an environment of trust and inter-dependence between the employer and the employee.


The phenomena of motivation has been explained by a large number of theorists as per their perceptions. They all however agree that motivation is the sole purpose for doing anything by all living beings. In the business world, workforce motivation means making the employees to exert a high degree of effort and to keep doing that consistently. McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y are two sets of assumptions about nature of people. McGregor chose these terms most probably because he wanted neutral terminologies without any connotation of being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Both the sets of assumptions are fundamentally different; Theory X suggesting a pessimistic approach and Theory Y providing an optimistic managerial approach. Theory Z on the other hand stresses on the need for long term commitment with the employees and consensual decision making, which automatically develops an environment of understanding and commitment.


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