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Theory X, Theory Y and Teachers

I always spend a good deal of time talking to my graduate students in education administration about ancient history – McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

Douglas McGregor, as you may remember was a pioneer of management theory.  He was a social psychologist who became the president of Antioch College and later worked as a professor of management at MIT.  He is best remembered for his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he presented his now-famous Theory X and Theory Y.

McGregor claimed that managers tend to accept one of two competing theories about the nature of human beings.  Theory X suggests that people are generally lazy, dislike change, want to be told what to do, and will only do it under the threat of punishment.  The Theory X approach places management in total control.  Theory Y, on the other hand, maintains that people want to grow and want to be responsible and that they respond best to encouragement and praise.  Theory X is an authoritarian management style; Theory Y is a participative management style.

Treating employees well still seems to pay off, according to John Waggoner, writing in USA Today’s “Money” section.  There is plenty of evidence, he says, that companies that treat their employees well see their stocks prosper.  This is not to say that companies that treat their employees poorly tank, but employees who are engaged in their work are likely to do a better job.  In addition, companies who treat their employees well tend to see less turnover, costing the company less in job training.  Waggoner points out that the companies on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For have an average turnover of professionals of 11.3% vs. 24.7% nationwide.

While McGregor first proposed X and Y theories for business management, his ideas quickly spread to social agencies and to schools.  In my early years of teaching, all my principals (like most administrators at the time) were Theory X guys.  There were no “shared decision making committees” or "principal’s cabinet.”  There were no peer reviews or teacher satisfaction surveys.  The principal made all the decisions and rarely if ever asked for input.

When I became a principal myself, however, after 10 years of teaching, I was decidedly a Theory Y type.  The Theory X guys went the way of the dinosaurs (in fact, we new principals often referred to them that way), and shared decision-making became literally the law of the land (at least in New York State).  Today, teacher participation is part of the culture of most school districts across the country.

Today schools seem to be caught in a conflict between X and Y theories.  Some politicians and education reformers believe that schools will not improve unless you threaten to fire teachers and principals and close schools.  Most school people, on the other hand, believe school improvement is a question of more training and working together with kids and families. 

There is plenty of evidence regarding which theory produces the best results.  Not that policy makers rely on research.

X-y-mcgregor

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