Is 'Theory X' management really dead?

Command and control leadership still appropriate – at times

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

As HR professionals, we're not supposed to buy into the old school “command and control” style of leadership.

Therefore, when it comes to Douglas McGregor's “X and Y” theories of management, we generally believe in more of a Theory Y type approach to management and leadership. (Recall proponents of Theory X believe people generally dislike work and will often try to avoid it, whereas Theory Y managers believe most people like work and do better when they are able to self-manage and control their own work as much as possible.)

There is, of course, a newer theory referred to as “Theory Z,” as developed by William Ouchi, a professor at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA in Los Angeles. Theory Z, based on the Japanese style of management, requires a strong organizational culture and set of values, a long-range approach to training and development and a highly participatory style of management. In many ways, however, Theory Z is simply an extension of Theory Y.

Regardless of the label, modern management thinking posits that more participatory and empowering styles of management generally lead to greater job satisfaction and higher levels of employee engagement. This is especially true when managing highly skilled knowledge workers or virtual teams where it is impossible to directly supervise the completion of each and every task.

Theory X still has a place

Yet, this type of management style isn’t appropriate for every individual or every situation. Sometimes, a strong, “take charge” orientation is required to get the job done.

Being a manager, I have experienced this first hand. While all of the people I have managed over the years have been highly educated, conscientious and motivated, sometimes it is necessary to resort to command and control leadership even with such individuals (albeit less frequently than when dealing with employees in minimum wage retail jobs, for example).

Although it’s great to get input from direct reports and involve them in the decision making process, sometimes you simply have to resort to saying: “We’re going to do it this way because I said so and I’m the boss.”

This is sometimes required when people question your authority, or when they act like know-it-alls (even though they may be missing much of the context or history necessary to see the “bigger picture”).

It’s also frequently necessary to take charge in an emergency situation or where there isn’t sufficient time to gather input and consult with employees. However, the most common situation where Theory X management comes into play involves scenarios where the people concerned are simply unwilling or incapable of self-management.

Some employees don’t want empowerment

This isn’t very politically correct, but some people simply don’t want to be empowered. They just want to be told what to do and when to do it. In fact, I’ve seen situations where it bothered people to have to prioritize their work and decide how tasks should be completed.

Paradoxically, however, I also believe it isn’t always about the person themselves. Sometimes the situation (and even the person’s job title and level of authority) dictates how proactive or reactive someone is going to be. Personally, I’m much more likely to self manage when I’m “the boss” and feel I have a wide range of authority and discretion than when I’m in a more junior role — especially where I feel I’m being micromanaged or am constrained by highly bureaucratic and inflexible policies and processes.

So, I suppose that brings us full circle back to Theory Y, since micromanagement is very much a tactic employed by managers using a Theory X approach. Few people like to be micromanaged. However, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for Theory X management in some situations.

This may come as a shock to some people, but many employees even in this day and age will get by with the minimum amount of effort, waste time, loaf around when no one is looking, leave early or book off sick even when they’re not. Because of this, a Theory X approach may be necessary — although I believe it’s best to give people the benefit of the doubt and go with a more empowering approach to begin with.

A variation on this theme is the concept of situational leadership, which advocates using different styles of management in different circumstances. Using a situational leadership approach requires a leader to treat each management situation on a one-off basis by assessing each individual’s levels of both “skill” and “will” with respect to the task at hand, then acting accordingly.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit   

Latest stories