Biography of Douglas McGregor

Management pioneer, Douglas Murray McGregor (1906 - 1964) was born in the bustling border metropolis of Detroit, Michigan just as it was emerging as the world's great Motor City. While he was at High School, McGregor worked as night clerk at the McGregor Institute and also played piano at its regular services. The Institute was very much a family affair; originally set up by his grandfather, it was now being managed by his uncle Tracy and father Murray to provide temporary accommodation for around 100 transient workers at a time.

At 17, McGregor briefly considered becoming a lay preacher, before choosing to enrol for a psychology degree at the College of the City of Detroit (now Wayne State University). After two years of the course he tried a term at Oberlin, his uncle's old college in Ohio. But at 19, he decided to get married, drop out of College altogether and earn his living as a gas station attendant in Buffalo. By 1930, McGregor had risen to the rank of Regional Gas Station Manager.

Meanwhile in depression-hit Detroit, unemployment was soaring and the local Department of Public Works had handed the McGregor Institute a large subsidy to increase its facilities. Douglas McGregor decided he could now afford to resume his studies if he also worked part-time at the much expanded Institute. This meant that when he finally completed his first degree in 1932, he was also organising mass soup kitchens for the unemployed, while helping with the management of the Institute. Soon after his graduation he chose to move to the academic tranquillity of Cambridge, Massachusetts to continue his education. For three years he studied at Harvard gaining an MA and PhD in psychology. (The colour blind McGregor had chosen The Sensitivity of the Eye to the Saturation of Colours for his PhD topic.) For the next two years he stayed on at Harvard as a psychology lecturer. Then in 1937 he took the short trip down Massachusetts Avenue to set up an Industrial Relations Section at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to his teaching work at MIT, McGregor took on increasing amounts of industrial relations consultancy work, particularly at Dewey Almy, a local rubber and sealants company. This work covered wage and salary administration, contract negotiation, foremen training, grievance handling, executive development programs, union and management cooperation programs, and problems of organizational structure and function. He was also much in demand as a speaker by both business and by labour unions. But when in 1947, the President of the progressive Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, resigned, Douglas McGregor seized the opportunity and applied for the post.

The 41 year old McGregor commenced his Presidential term at Antioch in 1948. It was to prove a pivotal point in his life and in his personal development. As he tried to put his cooperative style into practice, he could now appreciate the problems of leadership first hand. At the forefront of what was to become the civil rights movement, Antioch were one of the first US mainstream colleges to welcome African-Americans. But when they qualified as teachers, McGregor struggled to get them placed in any of the local white schools. He also had to resist pressure from the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee to expel student activists with left-wing views. And, of course, there were always the continuing problems of attracting enough new students and fee income to balance the College's books. As McGregor was later to reflect, I thought I could avoid being a 'boss'. ........... I could not have been more wrong. It took a couple of years, but I finally began to realise that a leader cannot avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid responsibility for what happens to his organization. Moreover, since no important decision ever pleases everyone in the organization, he must absorb the displeasure, and sometimes severe hostility, of those who would have taken a different course.

After six years of trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of leadership at Antioch College, McGregor decided to return to MIT, this time as a faculty member of the recently established Sloan School of Management. He persuaded the former trade union accountant Joe Scanlon to join him at MIT. McGregor had worked with Scanlon at Dewey Almy. The coarsely spoken ex-boxer and steelworker had built an impressive reputation with his Scanlon Plan for staff involvement, suggestion schemes and gainsharing. Scanlon's work was to become an important source for Theory Y in McGregor's 1960 best-seller The Human Side of Enterprise. McGregor's compelling new vocabulary assured him of almost instant global fame. However for the remainder of his life McGregor tried vainly to dispel the simplified paradigm of Theory X = Bad; Theory Y= Good that others had imposed on his analysis. Though Douglas McGregor was to die suddenly of a heart attack aged just 58, his work has stood the test of time. One small reflection of this is that the main Antioch campus at Yellow Springs is now called Antioch University McGregor, or more commonly just McGregor.

Custom Search

Valid CSS! Valid HTML 5.

browser implementation

For more information, contact: Managers-Net.