In his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, Douglas McGregor made the distinction between Theory X and Theory Y, two competing theories about human nature that dominate managerial thought:
Theory X says that the average human being is lazy and self-centered, lacks ambition, dislikes change, and longs to be told what to do. The corresponding managerial approach emphasizes total control. Employee motivation, it says, is all about the fear and the pain. Theory Y maintains that human beings are active rather than passive shapers of themselves and of their environment. They long to grow and assume responsibility. The best way to manage them, then, is to manage as little as possible. Give them water and let them bloom, say the Y-types.
We are all Theory Y people now — at least when it comes to delivering or receiving motivational talks — and yet, truth be told, we all have our doubts that the world has caught up with our wisdom about it. It will have already occurred to many people, for example, that quite a few of those companies are great places to work because they are successful, rather than the other way around. (I mean, any old company can offer free haircuts and on-site medical care if it has a market capitalization of US$200 billion and a fast-growing market.) There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that firms change their assumptions about human nature after their fortunes change, rather than before. The dot-coms, for example, were all exuberantly convinced about the merits of self-realization in the workplace as long as the market-valuation bubbly was pouring. In the gloomy aftermath, many of the surviving firms transformed themselves with impressive speed into gulag archipelagoes, imposing harsh, X-style discipline on employees who were doing all those jobs that the dot-coms did not outsource.
In the story as McGregor tells it, and more especially as his successors resell it, the world of X is in a state of conflict. Workers and managers eye one another across the ragged front lines of suspicion and mistrust. The world of Y is in a state of peace. Workers and managers embrace one another as partners on the journey to personal fulfillment. And all that is required to change from one state to the next is making a simple change in one’s assumptions about human nature. But is this really true? Does all conflict dissolve in a higher state of consciousness?
Rather than Theory X and Theory Y, about human nature, Matthew Stewart suggests we examine Theory U and Theory T, about human relations:
Theory U, for Utopian, says that conflicts among human beings always originate in misunderstanding. Eliminate the false assumptions that individuals carry around in their heads, the theory says, and a human community will return to the natural state of peace. McGregor — like just about every management guru you’ve ever heard of — is a U-man at heart.
Theory T, for Tragic, says that conflict is endemic to human relations and arises from real divergences of interest. Peace is therefore a temporary state, and its endurance depends primarily not on the attitudes of individuals but on the system of their relations. Shakespeare and the framers of the U.S. Constitution are classic T-types.
Both theories put crucial emphasis on the concept of “trust,” but in strikingly different ways. Theory U says that you build trust by relaxing your control over people — by showing them that you trust them. Theory T says you build trust by demonstrating that things are under control — by creating a system in which good deeds regularly receive due rewards and bad deeds are appropriately punished.
The two pairs of management theories naturally make a two-by-two matrix: