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Published: August 24, 2010
 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60


Theory U and Theory T

Theory T, for Tragic, says that conflict is endemic to human relations and arises from real divergences of interest. Peace is therefore a temporary state, and its endurance depends primarily not on the attitudes of individuals but on the system of their relations. Shakespeare and the framers of the U.S. Constitution are classic T-types.

Both theories put crucial emphasis on the concept of “trust,” but in strikingly different ways. Theory U says that you build trust by relaxing your control over people — by showing them that you trust them. Theory T says you build trust by demonstrating that things are under control — by creating a system in which good deeds regularly receive due rewards and bad deeds are appropriately punished.

It should be clear that the distinction between U and T, just like the distinction between X and Y, is not intended to imply the logical superiority of one alternative over the other. U and T represent distinct viewpoints or approaches, each valid under the appropriate circumstances, rather than genuinely exclusive scientific hypotheses.

It should also be clear that my pair of alphabet theories is orthogonal to McGregor’s pair. That is, it is perfectly possible to believe that human beings are the active, self-realizing wonders of Theory Y and to believe that, if given a chance, these amazing beings will actualize themselves by slitting one another’s throats and plundering company resources in accordance with the dictates of Theory T. Conversely, one may believe that human beings are by nature X-like slugs, and yet that with appropriate conditioning, they will work together in perfect U-harmony. Each of the four combinations of the two pairs of theories gives rise to a distinctive approach to managerial problems. I summarize the possibilities in the Human Relations Theory Matrix. (See the exhibit above.)

With the benefit of the matrix, it is possible to see that much of the debate about Theory X and Theory Y has taken place along the diagonal between the controllers and the freedom lovers, and that it is for this reason that the debate has been somewhat confusing and unedifying. Critics of Theory X generally focus their ire on the controllers. But the tyrannical behavior of this unprepossessing group arguably owes less to its theory of human nature (X) than to its beliefs about the non-eliminable sources of human conflict (T). Critics of Theory Y, conversely, complain mostly about the freedom lovers. The dangerously anarchistic creed of these managerial flower children, however, stems less from their high opinion of their fellow human beings (Y) than from their utopian ideas about human communities (U).

Once we get clear about the real issues of the debate, it also becomes evident that the hard work for managers lies less in the transition from X to Y than in the transition from U to T. If it requires a more thoughtful approach to management to accept that people are active by nature rather than passive, it requires a still more thoughtful approach to grapple with the fact that they can be active and destructive at the same time. Of the four types of managers in the Human Relations Theory Matrix, it is the constitutionalists who must expend the most mental energy and governance effort.

The difference between U and T, in the final analysis, is that one is easy and the other is hard. Theory U assures us that our problems can be solved by changing our view of the world. Theory T says that the solutions may require actually changing the world. U tells us that we can bring everyone together with the right words. T replies that we’ll probably have to make some compromises, too. U rests its case on the fairness of its schemes. T emphasizes the fairness of its processes. U guarantees a happy ending. T promises only the temporary postponement of disaster.

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