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.

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