From McGregor to Snowden, through Stevens

Warning: this post is primarily a theoretical nerd-out.

In 1960, Douglas McGregor wrote his seminal book, “The Human Side of the Enterprise“, where Theory X and Theory Y, his two theories of human motivation, were presented in detail. Under Theory X, people are assumed to have a natural dislike for work. They avoid responsibility, prefer to be directed, lack ambition, and value security most of all. Therefore, they must be coerced, controlled, directed and threatened with punishment for the organization to achieve its objectives. Under Theory Y, people are assumed to view work to be as natural as play or rest. Given the right conditions, people can learn to accept and seek responsibility. They will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which they are committed. And the commitment is a function of rewards associated with achieving the objectives. Though McGregor was explicit that those theories should NOT be viewed as the two opposites of the same continuum, more contemporary management philosophies do view them as such, and therefore advocate for management practices that assume Theory Y is the “better” one.


Source: Trost (2009)

Reality, however, seems to be more complicated than this extreme simplification. 27 years later, Marvin Weisboard, in “Productive Workplaces“, proposed a view that seems to be describing reality more accurately. Theory X and Y are more like yin and yang, they are two parts of our personalities co-exiting within our selves, each having positive and negative aspects. Explaining his view in full would require too long of a digression, so the summary below will have to suffice:


Source: Weisboard (1987/2012)

Fast forward another 20 years to 2007. David Snowden publishes his now-famous Cynefin Framework in the HBR article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making“. In it, he’s making a strong case for leaders to apply a different leadership style depending on the nature of the problem/situation they are trying to address:


Source: Snowden and Boone (2007)

Snowden’s advocacy for a dynamic leadership style, seems to tie well with Weisboard’s dynamic view on Theories X and Y. Do they have more in common that meets the eye?

In a piece titled “Theories X and Y, Revisited“, Mathew Stewart proposed what I think can be the missing link. He argues that some of the confusion around Theories X and Y can be removed by supplementing these theories about human nature, with two additional theories, Theories U and T, about the nature of human relationship and specifically, human conflict. Theory U (Utopian) assumes conflict between people stems from misunderstandings. If you eliminate the false assumptions people are making, things will go back to the natural state of peace. Theory T (Tragic) assumes that conflict between people stems from real divergences of interest. Peace is temporary and depends on the system that defines the relationships, rather than on the attitudes of individuals. Combining the four theories creates four leadership approaches: Controllers (X+T), Programmers (X+U), Consititutionalists (Y+T) and Freedom Lovers (Y+U):


Let’s start by removing the judgmental tone in Stewart’s original classification. And then let’s add a dynamic view to the classification: the nature of the conflict (U/T) and the propensity for exhibiting a certain type of motivation (X/Y) are both influenced by the particular situation at hand.  And we end with something that looks a lot like the Cynefin Framework:



The correlation is not perfect. But the similarities seem to be too many to be ignored. In my humble opinion, of course.


From McGregor to Snowden, through Stevens

2 thoughts on “From McGregor to Snowden, through Stevens

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