Of the many factors that influence how effective a team is, one of the most important is the role of the leader, manager or sponsor. Whether for an intact work team, a special project team or a cross-functional improvement team, the leader must provide mission, resources, empowerment and rewards for the team to be successful.

Of these leadership responsibilities, perhaps the most challenging and difficult to master is empowerment. In spite of some signs of progress, the old-school style of command and control management and close supervision is still alive and well.

Why do some managers hold on so tightly to authority and micro-manage their people, while other leaders are able to release control, decision-making and problem-solving to their teams?

One way to answer the question is to look at Theory X and Theory Y which are differing approaches identified by Douglas McGregor at MIT Sloan School of Management. McGregor described two attitude profiles about human nature that can underlie leadership behavior.


Theory X:

  • Assumes people have an inherent dislike of work.
  • Calls for strict supervision and threat of punishment to coerce performance from employees.
  • Believes workers naturally avoid responsibilities and prefer to be directed.
  • Pessimistic about human beings.

Theory Y:

  • Assumes people want to do good work, enjoy their labor, and improve themselves.
  • Believes that workers will exercise self-direction and seek responsibility when they are committed to objectives.
  • Accepts that the ability to be creative and solve problems is not limited to management ranks.
  • An inherently optimistic view of people.


Theory X hearkens back to the Industrial Revolution when organizations were modeled after the military and the Catholic Church. People at the top made the important decisions, managers in the middle made less important decisions and people at the bottom made no decisions at all – they simply followed the rules.

Theory Y started to come into practice in the 20th century as technology created a new level of transparency leading to increasing customer demands and the need for non-stop innovation. In an increasingly complex world, agility and responsiveness are a competitive advantage, and that requires independence and decision-making power for those on the front-line.

It would seem obvious that leaders should embrace a Theory Y mindset, and yet old habits die hard.

As evidence that Theory X still dominates, all it takes is a look at the most recent Gallup annual survey on Employee Engagement in the U.S. The results are the best ever in the almost 20-year history of the survey, with 35% of employees being Engaged and only 13% being Actively Disengaged. However, that still leaves 52% who are Not Engaged! Better, but certainly not desirable.

Up until recently, organizations could choose whether or not to nurture a culture based on empowerment and teamwork. If they chose not to do the difficult work and shift to a new leadership paradigm, they left untapped potential and performance on the table, but it may not have threatened their existence.

All that has now changed. We are in the midst of gut-wrenching disruption due to the Covid19 pandemic. As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore”. In this challenging and unfamiliar environment, organizations will need the full effort and best ideas from all their employees to survive. And that means Theory Y managers will need to lead the way.

If you are a leader seeking to reinvent yourself, refer back to the profiles of Theory X and Theory Y and ask two questions:

  • Which profile would your employees say best describes your approach as a leader?
  • What can you do to shift your assumptions and behaviors to be more of a Theory Y leader?


If you want to learn more about how HPISolutions can help you maximize the potential of your team, please visit our website at hpisolutions.com or email us at info@hpisolutions.com.