Interview FAQ: How Do You Motivate People?


In 1960, Douglas MacGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management developed two theories of workplace motivation, Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X assumptions

  • People have an inherent dislike for work and will avoid it whenever possible.
  • People must be coerced, controlled, directed, or threatened with punishment in order to get them to achieve the organizational objectives.
  • People prefer to be directed, do not want responsibility, and have little or no ambition.
  • People seek security above all else.

Theory Y assumptions

  • Work is as natural as rest or play.
  • People will exercise self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organizational objectives.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
  • Imagination, ingenuity and creativity are widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • The intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilized.

I come down strongly in favor of Theory Y. I don’t feel like I’m an inherently unmotivated person, that my boss has to keep coming up with new ways to get my head in the game, and I don’t find that most other people do either. People want to do good work. They want the opportunity to do good work.

The key, really, is not to motivate people, but to avoid demotivating them. A lot of managers haven’t figured that one out yet.

  3 comments for “Interview FAQ: How Do You Motivate People?

  1. 22 Jan 2007 at 12:08 pm

    I have given these two theories quite a bit of thought when I first heard of them.
    I am not too sure that I would come down on either side of the coin.

    Probably what is more important is what the individual considers work and what the individual considers play.

    Taking our field for example and imagine two extremes on a sliding scale. At one end, the person could care less about ‘building’ cool stuff that works well, and would rather be making music. On the other end, we have somebody that derives satisfaction and seritonin (sp?) from creating a bitchen product.

    To suppose a theory x OR y would also suppose that these people can derive equal satisfaction in what they do.

    I just don’t believe that is the case.

    That’s not to say that motivation (or demotivation as it were)is out of the game for managers. But… if you buy my theory, which is far more relative, then at least you don’t come up with a one size fits all.

    just my thoughts.

  2. PE
    23 Jan 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Haywire (if in fact that is your real name, which I doubt) —

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment…

    So you think the misplaced musician in your example would be motivated by Theory X management techniques? I don’t. If your management model is based on who gets to give the orders and who has to take the orders, you’re going to have difficulties, because I’ve never worked anywhere where people like taking orders, where they find that motivating.

    I’m going to stick with my theory that if you give people opportunities to do great work, they will motivate themselves. Now if you work in an IT shop and you’re looking for an opportunity to make music all day, I don’t think we can help you, but that doesn’t refute the theory.

  3. PE
    30 Jan 2007 at 9:36 pm

    To see how too much motivation can be a bad thing, see this post.

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