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Tom Butero, MSW

About Tom

Nonprofit Organization Leaders: Are You an X or a Y?

Nonprofit organization leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the management principles developed in the business world have little to do with the management of nonprofit organizations.

The thing is, the staff of a nonprofit organization has a management structure, too. Organizations that have a handle on management are better able to fulfill the mission while those that are more “accidental” in their approach often have an underproducing and unhappy staff. (Which is yours?)

I’m going to share some management theory here that I first learned about during my undergraduate career in an intro-to-management class. If the senior management of your organization is already familiar with it, good! If not, print out a copy of this article and share it with them. Here goes:

Theories of Human Motivation

Theory X and Theory Y were developed by social psychologist Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s. These theories have been adapted and applied to management and organizational behavior.

Theory X Management

Theory X purports that workers are basically not self-motivated and therefore need to be closely supervised and persuaded by outside influences to perform. Incentives are the only way to get them to work at an efficient level and constant monitoring is the order of the day.

Theory Y Management

Theory Y assumes that employees are self-motivated and will work at their maximum potential without much, if any, outside influence. The theory assumes that employees are goal oriented and will work for the betterment of the organizations and, in turn, for themselves.

I remember thinking that, being a good social worker, I should think of myself as a proponent of Theory Y.

A few years later I interviewed for a program director’s position at a mental health center. The interviewer asked me about my management style, and I briefly explained the two theories. When I was asked which one I adhered to, I said Theory Y, of course. The interviewer responded in a somewhat sarcastic tone by saying, “Why am I not surprised?” I knew I was in trouble.

Over the years I have come to realize that these theories are not as much management techniques as they are a way of viewing the world in relation to the workplace — a management philosophy, if you will. How one incorporates these into a management style depends on other factors.

Certainly, how you interpret these theories will influence your management style, but it is important to understand that, like anything else, the tenets that each theory puts forth are contextual. Different circumstances call for different approaches.

I once heard a comedy sketch on the radio of a college football team made up of philosophy majors. When it came time for the quarterback to call a play in the huddle, a discussion ensued about the motivational factors of a play fake and whether a long bomb was to be taken literally or as a metaphor. Not exactly the place for a Theory Y approach!

Which approach you take will often depend on the situation. If your building is on fire, you'll no doubt take a more directive approach. Once the fire is out and the crisis has passed, you may be less directive and spend time attending to your employees’ needs and their reactions to what has occurred.

Even at that, a more directive versus participatory approach is not, in and of itself, an indicator of which theory a manager may subscribe to. A good manager knows when and how to use any approach. Good managers will use a combination of techniques at any given time. An experienced manager knows that you cannot subscribe to one theory or another exclusively and effectively.

Nonprofit Organization Leaders: Effective Leadership

Theory X and Theory Y are descriptions of two different management philosophies and belief systems, but they are not necessarily examples of leadership. Effective leadership includes the ability to use different approaches and styles that best fit the situation. It’s all about a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a lot of knowing the difference.

Another important aspect of this discussion is to not fall into the trap of judging either theory as being “better” than the other. It’s tempting to value one theory over the other based on your own beliefs and principles, but both have merit and utility in relation to the setting and the task at hand.

Who Would YOU Want to Work For?

So, after reviewing the two theories, ask yourself, are you an X or are you a Y? Before you answer that question, ask yourself another question: Who would you want to work for? If I were to answer the question, it would be to work for an organization that incorporates the best of both.

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1 Comment

  1. Betty Greer on May 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you. Thinking about this.

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