Organizational Psychology: The Social Dimension of Work


A significant portion of I-O research focuses on management and human relations. Douglas McGregor (1960) combined scientific management (a theory of management that analyzes and synthesizes workflows with the main objective of improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity) and human relations into the notion of leadership behavior. His theory lays out two different styles called Theory X and Theory Y. In the Theory X approach to management, managers assume that most people dislike work and are not innately self-directed. Theory X managers perceive employees as people who prefer to be led and told which tasks to perform and when. Their employees have to be watched carefully to be sure that they work hard enough to fulfill the organization’s goals. Theory X workplaces will often have employees punch a clock when arriving and leaving the workplace: Tardiness is punished. Supervisors, not employees, determine whether an employee needs to stay late, and even this decision would require someone higher up in the command chain to approve the extra hours. Theory X supervisors will ignore employees’ suggestions for improved efficiency and reprimand employees for speaking out of order. These supervisors blame efficiency failures on individual employees rather than the systems or policies in place. Managerial goals are achieved through a system of punishments and threats rather than enticements and rewards. Managers are suspicious of employees’ motivations and always suspect selfish motivations for their behavior at work (e.g., being paid is their sole motivation for working).

In the Theory Y approach, on the other hand, managers assume that most people seek inner satisfaction and fulfillment from their work. Employees function better under leadership that allows them to participate in, and provide input about, setting their personal and work goals. In Theory Y workplaces, employees participate in decisions about prioritizing tasks; they may belong to teams that, once given a goal, decide themselves how it will be accomplished. In such a workplace, employees are able to provide input on matters of efficiency and safety. One example of Theroy Y in action is the policy of Toyota production lines that allows any employee to stop the entire line if a defect or other issue appears, so that the defect can be fixed and its cause remedied (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, 2013). A Theory Y workplace will also meaningfully consult employees on any changes to the work process or management system. In addition, the organization will encourage employees to contribute their own ideas. McGregor (1960) characterized Theory X as the traditional method of management used in the United States. He agued that a Theory Y approach was needed to improve organizational output and the wellbeing of individuals. Table summarizes how these two management approaches differ.

Theory X Theory Y
People dislike work and avoid it. People enjoy work and find it natural.
People avoid responsibility. People are more satisified when given responsibility.
People want to be told what to do. People want to take part in setting their own work goals.
Goals are achieved through rules and punishments. Goals are achieved through enticements and rewards.
Theory X and Theory Y Management Styles

Another management style was described by Donald Clifton, who focused his research on how an organization can best use an individual’s strengths, an approach he called strengths-based management. He and his colleagues interviewed 8,000 managers and concluded that it is important to focus on a person’s strengths, not their weaknesses. A strength is a particular enduring talent possessed by an individual that allows her to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in tasks involving that talent. Clifton argued that our strengths provide the greatest opportunity for growth (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). An example of a strength is public speaking or the ability to plan a successful event. The strengths-based approach is very popular although its effect on organization performance is not well-studied. However, Kaiser & Overfield (2011) found that managers often neglected improving their weaknesses and overused their strengths, both of which interfered with performance.

Leadership is an important element of management. Leadership styles have been of major interest within I-O research, and researchers have proposed numerous theories of leadership. Bass (1985) popularized and developed the concepts of transactional leadership versus transformational leadership styles. In transactional leadership, the focus is on supervision and organizational goals, which are achieved through a system of rewards and punishments (i.e., transactions). Transactional leaders maintain the status quo: They are managers. This is in contrast to the transformational leader. People who have transformational leadership possess four attributes to varying degrees: They are charismatic (highly liked role models), inspirational (optimistic about goal attainment), intellectually stimulating (encourage critical thinking and problem solving), and considerate (Bass, Avolio, & Atwater, 1996).

As women increasingly take on leadership roles in corporations, questions have arisen as to whether there are differences in leadership styles between men and women (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen, 2003). Eagly & Johnson (1990) conducted a meta-analysis to examine gender and leadership style. They found, to a slight but significant degree, that women tend to practice an interpersonal style of leadership (i.e., she focuses on the morale and welfare of the employees) and men practice a task-oriented style (i.e., he focuses on accomplishing tasks). However, the differences were less pronounced when one looked only at organizational studies and excluded laboratory experiments or surveys that did not involve actual organizational leaders. Larger sex-related differences were observed when leadership style was categorized as democratic or autocratic, and these differences were consistent across all types of studies. The authors suggest that similarities between the sexes in leadership styles are attributable to both sexes needing to conform the organization’s culture; additionally, they propose that sex-related differences reflect inherent differences in the strengths each sex brings to bear on leadership practice. In another meta-analysis of leadership style, Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen (2003) found that women tended to exhibit the characteristics of transformational leaders, while men were more likely to be transactional leaders. However, the differences are not absolute; for example, women were found to use methods of reward for performance more often than men, which is a component of transactional leadership. The differences they found were relatively small. As Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen (2003) point out, research shows that transformational leadership approaches are more effective than transactional approaches, although individual leaders typically exhibit elements of both approaches.