A friend uses a very strong Y-Theory approach to management and recently his organization added a new business unit. That business unit has a very senior technical systems administrator who has become used to a strong X-Theory management approach and has adopted some x-type behaviors (pushing back against issues like status reporting and working core-hours).

What he'd like to do is to start using y-theory approaches as soon as possible, but without enabling x-type behaviors. How can my friend transition this x-type employee to work well with y-theory management styles?

  • 3
    I'm not a big fan of the "management by neat little theories" approach your question suggests. People are individuals. Maybe the senior sysadmin isn't "adopting some x-type behaviours" as much as they're questioning the need for status reports and working of 'core hours' (for a proponent of Y-Theory, these sure sound like your friend is using X-Theory management practices here, to me). Certainly I know a lot of IT professionals that this theory would class as "x-type", who do like work, take pride in what they produce etc, but will push back against being managed like automatons.
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 22:14
  • 2
    I find this question very hard to read without some context on types of management. I know there's one link in the question to explain, but I feel like this question would receive more attention if it came with an explanation. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 9:58

3 Answers 3


I appreciate the question here, since as a manager, I've dealt with similar circumstances. I respect the answer from HLGEM, but have to diverge from it somewhat based on personal experience.

In many environments, the team productivity is far more important than individual contribution. In my work as a software development manager, no one individual outweighs the team effort. In a team-focused environment, one bad apple can poison the environment of teamwork you're trying to build. This isn't some theoretical X vs. Y debate, this is how the team works vs. someone who doesn't fit into the team and decreases the overall productivity.

So some concrete ways to deal with this individual who isn't fitting:

  • First, be careful about the terminology you use with any discussions about this. As HLGEM's answer shows, some people have an adverse reaction to Theoretical management. I would use the terminology Command-and-Control vs. Self-Organizing. When you frame the terminology used (which you usually can by default using the bully pulpit of being the manager), you already have a head-start on the discussion (doesn't "Self-Organizing" already sound much more appealing than "Command-and-Control"?). You can use different terms if you like, but I've seen this terminology play well in organizations.

  • Always emphasize What is best for the team. This isn't about the manager's preferences, this is about team fit. As the manager you may have a fair amount of latitude when building the team environment, but you need to keep the focus off of yourself and on the team. If you have experience with different team cultures, you can use the "I've seen this work well in other locations" argument, but even that runs some risk of alienating people (well we're not in that location!).

  • This goes with the last one, but tie this to whatever market/business change is driving it. Maybe it's a new manager and that's just the way things are changing, or maybe it's a new market headwind, etc. You don't want this employee thinking "My boss just has a bug up their ... all of the sudden, for this change." Something triggered this, be transparent about what.

  • Have Regular One-on-one's with this person and Ask them what motivates them. Try to get this input from them in as neutral of a way as possible. This is important regardless of the culture fit of this person, but you'll especially need this information as you try to deal with this individual. Just having the meeting and discussing things, i.e. showing an interest in their motivation, can open doors.

  • You didn't say what industry, but if it's any sort of knowledge worker, I'd encourage you to first watch this excellent youtube video on what motivates people yourself, and then have them watch it. It states some of the science behind what you're calling a "Y-theory" management style (but will soon hopefully be calling a "self-organizing" style).

  • They need to know this isn't optional. I DO NOT mean threaten them in any way, but the writing needs to be on the wall that this is the way we're doing things going forward. They need to get on board (the obvious implication that if they don't they will be dropped shouldn't be stated unless you're getting close to it). Be patient as they are trying to adapt, but not everyone can make this transition.

  • Explain the reason for needing them to buy into this. Employees are generally happier when they understand the reasons behind things - even when they don't agree with the decision (at least they know you're not crazy).

  • 3
    This is a great answer - exactly the type of answer I was hoping to get when I posted this bounty. Thanks!
    – enderland
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:36
  • It's good to see the qurstions from this perspective can get solid answers here. Great answer and thanks.
    – Mike Van
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 0:16

I have been in the work world for well over 30 years and I have seen a lot of good managers, a lot of bad managers and a lot of mediocre managers. None of the good managers manage to some sort of management theory exclusively. Most of the bad managers do not either (some of them apparently have no management style whatsoever except "how can I push the blame off on someone else") but virtually all of the mediocre ones do.

He needs to manage the situation not the theory. If the organization is comfortable with the type of management they have, and is working effectively, then don't change it. Otherwise he will cause performance to get worse.

If they are not effective, then find the specific things that are causing the problem and make changes according to what you find. They may need more control or they may need less. It often depends on the regulatory environment and the specific types of work to be done and most importantly the personality types of the people. For some people Theory Y management is like a being in a torture chamber. Others like it. As a manager, he needs to go with what is best to get the job done, not with your personal preferences. Sometimes that is a mix of both. OR the problems may be that some incompetent people need more control and some others who do their jobs well need less. Or maybe he just needs to get rid of some people of fix some broken processes that have nothing to do with management theory such as an ineffective or nonexistent process for managing task prioritization (or even knowing what tasks need to be done).

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    As a manager you quickly realize your single most valuable resource (your staff) is also your least predictable and reliable resource. Due to it's volatile nature how you act / react has to shift constantly to respond in an effective manner to the chaos. There is no such thing as an Employee Type X and Employee Type Y. There are days we are excited about our jobs and work, and there are days we want nothing more than to be anyplace but at work. As a manager it's our job to try and promote the highs, mitigate the lows, and allocate our resources accordingly. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 19:53
  • Theory purity aside, I think we can agree that most employees tend to lean in one direction or the other. Just as there are no pure x or y types, so too are there no folks who truly fit in the middle.
    – Mike Van
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 20:09
  • @MikeVanTrufflebutt - I don't think managers have the luxury of just dealing with someone based on what his or her tendencies may be. It's the exceptions that you have to handle.
    – user8365
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 2:57
  • +1 - Humans are random in nature. I couldn't imagine trying to apply a 'blanket' style of management over more than 1 person. Sounds like a good way to drive right into a wall. Management is constantly adapting to the needs of companies/employees. It is not concrete do this/do that methodology.
    – Mark C.
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 15:05

There is obviously a culture clash here. I would advise a transition plan based initially on education, clear expectations setting and contingencies in the form of a succession plan. This way the employee can be empowered in the long run albeit with a degree of initial guidance.

The key point here is on providing a framework for a culture change.

The resource has to be eased in the new very different culture.

It is up to his supervisor to define the transition plan. Effectively I would expect objectives with clear deadline over a time period. Those objectives should be first very directive (like take a course on time management) moving gradually towards more initiative based (like having a 12 month training plan). Requesting a succession plan only ensures he has the type of incentive he is use to. Over time he has to discover, appreciate and in turn propose non coercive incentives.

  • So your suggestion is to throw in the towel and not even try to help this employee transition? That seems like a poor choice.
    – Jared
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 17:54
  • Quite the contrary, if the resource comes from an x-theory driven organisation, he is expecting clear rules of engagement and sanctions attached. By making the effort to provide him the framework he is used to you can then teach him and enable him to be be self driven. The idea is not to drop him but to reach to him in a way he can use to transition.
    – Ghaag
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 18:02
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    OK, when I read "Transition Plan" I saw that as code words for transitioning him out of this group, especially when you brought up a succession plan. The edits help, but I still don't really see any clear and actionable suggestions here.
    – Jared
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 18:08
  • Transitioning out wouldn't involved education as stated. It should remain a credible option if all else fails hence the succession plan. Also the resource may resent the cultural cleavage to the point where he himself initiate the separation. He is presented with a plan it might alleviate his concerns and enable the change of behaviour.
    – Ghaag
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 19:12

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