Are you Theory X or Theory Y?

The Agile Manifesto’s most important guidance is its first line:

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

To get the best from our individuals, the 5


of the Agile principles is:

Build projects around Motivated people

Motivation is important -  it releases energy and creativity to gain high performance. 

Of course the question is, how are people motivated? And thinking even before that, what do people need to be functional?


Agile looks to the work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s “The Theory of Human Motivation”. Maslow studied exemplary people, such as Einstein, as to how they were motivated, and formulated his now well-known pyramid of needs:

The cornerstone of Maslow’s theory is that people have an innate impetus to continually develop and succeed, and that they naturally move to self-actualization only once all supporting “deficient” needs are met. 

The fourth level, Esteem, means attaining self-esteem and self-confidence through competence or excellence in skills, abilities and achievements. Having self-esteem leads to a sense of contribution, of achievement and recognition. When esteem level is met, people will discover their full potential and become self-actualized. They can provide support and guidance to others.

Management’s Attitude determines Motivation

Maslow’s theory leads to, among others, Douglas McGregor’s 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise” in which he proposes that the manner of management’s interaction with employees is their primary motivator.  McGregor posits there are only two ways to motivate individuals based on Maslows lower and higher needs, which he named

Theory X


Theory Y


Management that uses

Theory X

treat employees as:

  • They are Lazy and dislike work
  • Require close supervision and control
  • Lack ambition without incentives
  • Avoid responsibility
  • Only work through threats and punishment
  • Have personal goals that go against organization goals
  • Their creativity and imagination are not used for work


: Focus on methods of control and punishment to drive productivity.

In Contrast,

Theory Y

managers see employees as:

  • Ambitious
  • Self-motivated and self-controlled
  • Treat work as a natural and normal part of life
  • Initiate their own learning
  • Accept responsibility and commit to organization objectives
  • Appreciate and respond to recognition and encouragement
  • Enjoy solving problems
  • Are demotivated when their talents are not used


: focus on creating the right conditions for employees to be self-directed

McGregor's conclusion is that management using Theory Y leads to better outcomes and productivity for the individual and organization.

But so much for the Theories – what actually works?  

Well, when it comes to culture, generally management get what they expect, and leaders set the example and standards for behavior in their organizations – which theory should be used for the IT industry?

We saw that the Agile Manifesto rates people to the highest position. That’s because modern software development is  team is a creative, collaborative activity, high performing teams, leadership and responsibility at all levels

Transitioning to Agile means a large and complex cultural change. Theory Y enables this, while Theory X blocks. 

So Agile leaders must adopt Theory Y management style


In 2010, Dan Pink’s Drive highlighted that there are less and less job roles where Theory X would be appropriate, whereas theory Y has become a significant advantage for companies

The factors for highly motivated people are:

  • Autonomy: people desire to direct their own lives. Gain control over their work
  • Mastery: to become better. Need and environment where learning is encouraged and mistakes are tolerated
  • Purpose: a natural desire to be part of something bigger than themselves 

So ask yourself, are you theory X, or Theory Y?