What theory of management is in sync with a behavioral model of leadership?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Before we discuss one possible answer to this question, we need to define what we mean by "behavioral" in this context.  This is a term that is used in leadership theory, positing that leaders could be formed by teaching them how to behave as leaders, as opposed to assuming that leaders must have within themselves innate skills to be good leaders.  On the other hand, when one speaks of a behavioral approach to leadership, what this also may mean is that the leader manages his or her employees based upon the principles of behaviorism, a theory in psychology developed by Watson, Pavlov, and Skinner. My answer is premised on the latter interpretation of your question.

In the sixties, Douglas McGregor theorized that there were two types of leadership, Theory X and Theory Y.  Theory X leaders, he argued, are those who function as leaders based upon the premise that workers are motivated solely through external rewards and punishments. Theory Y leaders, on the other hand, operate on the belief that workers find intrinsic reward in good work, the challenge of solving problems, the satisfaction inherent in increasing responsibility, and the pleasure of a job well done.

Since behaviorism theorizes that people are motivated by positive reinforcement to continue a behavior and motivated by negative reinforcement to eliminate a behavior, i.e., rewards and punishments, Theory X leaders, whether they realize it or not, are operating on behavioral principles to motive their employees. They reward good behavior and punish bad behavior in the workplace, believing that this is how workers are motivated. 

Both Theory X and Theory Y styles reflect the world views of the leaders who use them, but it is important to note that their most effective uses occur when a leader has an awareness that both are situational to some degree, that context can and should dictate which approach one takes.  On a production line, for example, where timing and precision are the highest values and there are few intrinsic rewards to be had in the work, Theory X makes a great deal more sense.  In a creative endeavor, for example, game development, employees are more likely to feel intrinsically rewarded in their work, and Theory Y is more efficacious. The nature of the work and the nature of the employees should always be taken into account, whether a leader has a Theory X or a Theory Y world view. 

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