Theory X in practice: distrustful manager demotivates employees

During an informal occasion, I met Mats. At one point during our conversation, he told me that he really enjoyed his work but that his manager's attitude frustrated him. What he told me reminded me of Douglas McGregor's influential insights that he described in his book The Human Side of Enterprise.

The distrust of the department head

Mats is the manager of eight employees. His own manager, department head Frank, communicates in a way that reveals distrust. For example, Frank insists that employees request work-from-home days in advance and make it clear that they will actually be working from home. Although Mats does not have to ask permission for his own home working days, Frank expects him to require his team members to ask permission to work from home. Recently, a team member asked Mats for permission to work from home, which Mats approved. After this team member announced in the department app that he would be working from home that day, Frank asked Mats whether he had given permission for this. Mats experienced this as a sign of distrust.

Doubting effort and integrity

When another team member recently asked Frank directly if he could work from home, he replied, “If you can sell that to your own conscience, that's fine.” This response seems to suggest that working from home is somehow less legitimate or acceptable than working in the office, which can be interpreted as a lack of trust in the employee's commitment and integrity. It implies that allowing work from home is a kind of concession or exception that must be justified by the employee, not a normal or accepted way of working. This can easily lead to feelings of frustration and demotivation, especially at a time when flexibility and trust are becoming increasingly important values in the workplace.

Demotivating and illogical

Mats finds Frank's attitude demotivating and illogical. He doesn't see working from home as a problem at all. For many tasks, it is not necessary to work in the office at all, and he trusts his employees. For some of the tasks, it can even be an advantage to be able to work at home, without distractions. Moreover, Mats has no reason to think that employees will trim their mustaches at home. And if they were not doing anything at home, he would notice that tasks were left behind and would later discuss this with the employee in question. Moreover, Mats wonders why Frank is only concerned about whether they are doing their work during their home working days. If you have that concern, you might as well go into the office and look over their shoulder to see if they are doing their job.

Mats notices that Frank's distrust is already starting to affect him. To show his commitment, he starts his working day at 7 a.m. by sending emails, even though his official start time is 7:30 a.m. He does this to prevent Frank from thinking that he is overdoing it, especially because on home working days he takes his children to school between 8 and 8:30 am and is therefore unavailable for a short time.

Douglas McGregor: theory X and theory Y

The psychologist Douglas McGregor (1906-1964) was a student of Abraham Maslow and strongly inspired by his work. He achieved great fame through his book The Human Side Enterprise (1960). The basic idea in this book was that managers' individual assumptions about the nature and behavior of employees determined how they interacted with them. He introduced two basic theories, theory X and theory Y:

  • Theory X assumes that the average employee is inherently lazy, doesn't like work, and needs constant supervision and external rewards or punishments to stay productive. Managers who follow Theory X often maintain strict control and apply a top-down, authoritarian approach.
  • Theory Y reflects a more positive view, suggesting that employees are intrinsically motivated, seek responsibility, and find work satisfying. Theory Y leaders promote a participatory management style that encourages employee trust, cooperation, and self-direction.

McGregor's key idea: McGregor proposed that an executive's beliefs about their employees fundamentally shape the way they lead. 

Employees respond to the manager's behavior, which, in theory X, creates a vicious circle. If they feel controlled and not trusted, they may become less motivated, less creative and less responsible. This response from the employees confirms the manager's assumptions. Theory Y can create a virtuous circle. Employees become better motivated, take responsibility, and are more creative. This response from the employees confirms the positive expectations of the manager.

Mats wants to leave

Mat's frustration with Frank's mistrust was expressed during a Zoom meeting with the management team, where he expressed his dissatisfaction with the mistrust experienced. Frank's reaction was initially angry, but he later softened his position by saying that it did not mean he did not trust the employees. However, Mats found this explanation unbelievable and felt that both he and his team did experience Frank's behavior as distrustful.

Mats is worried about the situation. He is considering taking matters to the extreme by, for example, working from home very often and seeing how Frank reacts to this. Rumor has it that Frank will be given another position in the organization early next year. That would create new opportunities, but Mats doubts whether he can last that long. He is now actively looking for other work and has found three vacancies.


What would you do in Mats' situation?