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Elton Mayo & The Human Relations Movement

Yonatan Reshef
School of Business
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

The following is based on:
David Montgomery. 1987. The Fall of the House of Labor. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elton Mayo. 1945. The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New Hampshire: Ayer.

Richard. C.S. Trahair. 1984. The Humanist Temper: The Life and Work of Elton Mayo. Transaction Books.

A second phase in the development of the traditional HRM (in North America) came during and after W.W.I, with the growth of the Human Relations (HR) movement. The Human Relations movement was an outgrowth of a major attempt by government, business, and unions to accommodate dramatic developments in manufacturing with new forms of work organization. With the collapse of these attempts at worker representation through collective structures (unions, shop committees, works councils), the focus shifted to the individual employee and to how to alleviate alienation at work.

Employee Representation at Work

Mobilization of the economy for war production locked the administrative structure of business and government tightly together, while full employment augmented workers' ability to win strikes and improve their terms of employment. The government's wartime quest for total mobilization of the American people's hearts, minds, and energies had prompted its administrative agencies not only to promote national standards of wages and hours but also to encourage corporate managers to bargain with elected representatives of their employees. Collective consultation between representatives of the workers and local managers could ensure that cordial cooperation which is likely to further industrial efficiency and provide the company "a maximum of publicity with minimum of interference in all that pertains to the conditions of employment" (Montgomery, 1987, p. 412).

In other words, World War I raised a need to increase productivity by reducing industrial disputes, absenteeism, turnover, and standardizing working conditions and pay structures. Exactly the same problems that Taylor had hoped to solve with his Scientific Management. To facilitate those objectives, managers were encouraged to adopt a new work organization that emphasized worker representation. Perhaps, this was an early indication of the limits of Scientific Management. When workers had an opportunity to rebel against Scientific Management, they took it.

Shop committees and works councils were created to deal with grievances, payment, and plans to improve productivity. A report from the Special Conference Committee in 1929 summed up the experience of the previous decade (quoted in Montgomery, 1987, p. 414): "Employee representation, in fact, furnishes an effective means through which management can exercise its normal function of leadership over the working force."

Job control unionism and Scientific Management 

The need to improve productivity -- through increased cooperation rather than repression -- created a need among managers to introduce innovative means of control (e.g., shop committees, consultation, higher wages) over the labor process, which, in turn, meshed with the unions' need to increase their membership base and resulted in an odd "marriage" between Taylorism and "progressive unionism." Thus, while both union traditionalists and radicals believed that shop committees were employers' instruments, to be infiltrated, smashed, and replaced with closed-shop craft unionism, others saw them as a means to broaden the union ranks. The latter were enthusiastically supported by personnel managers who believed that union-employer cooperation was the best means to improve productivity. The reason being, such cooperation reduces absenteeism and turnover, maintains an open-shop environment, and keeps the unions content and docile. Still, there was no guarantee that increased productivity would translate into pay increase or that the majority of the workers would not be hired on a temporary basis without any seniority rights.

But after the end of the War, the doors of possibility that wartime experience had opened slammed shut for many unions. The rising unemployment and the great crash of 1929 made it easy for management to seize all initiative in the area of employee representation. Apparently, management had never been sold on the idea that they should consult with unions over production issues. Managers believed that they could organize worker cooperation without the American Federation of Labor's (AFL) help. And as new production methods and technologies developed, managers lost interest in this unwanted child. But once unions were suppressed, workers' dissatisfaction found individual, personal expression in doing as little as possible for the wages they received and wasting as much material as possible. It was this problem, restriction of output (soldiering in Taylor's jargon), that Elton Mayo and his colleagues would seek to resolve.

The above implies that:

Scientific management, at least in its current form, was not embraced by American workers.

When conflicts erupted, managers quickly understood that they had to cater to workers' QWL (quality of worklife) needs in order to improve control and productivity.

Teams/cooperation/improved communication are not new ideas.

When changes in HRM practices are not underlain by a sound theory that relates new HRM techniques to a long-term transformation of management philosophy, values and behaviors, the changes will have little staying power. They will last until the unique circumstances that have caused them disappear.

Frequently (perhaps always), disgruntled employees will find ways to circumvent and undermine the system, expressing their dissatisfaction with existing working conditions and management behavior.

Motivating the Individual Worker

Mayo's basic thesis was that "our understanding of human problems of civilization should be at least equal to our understanding of its material problems.  In the absence of such understanding, the whole industrial structure is liable to destruction or decay.  A world-wide revolution of the Russian type would completely destroy civilization" (quoted in Trahair, 1984: 163).  He further argued that with the industrialization of society no improvement had come in the social status of the worker.  Once workers had had skilled jobs with necessary social functions but now they were dispossessed of decisions over their work, and its important functions passed to scientists and financiers.  At the same time that workers became cogs in the machine, they also were offered a vision of greater political freedom.  But socialism and syndicalism, thought Mayo, were charlatan remedies and quack political medicines (Trahair, 1984: 163).  Consequently, conflict was growing in industry, and consequently the danger of the collapse of society was mounting.  Through psychological investigation the irrational causes of conflict may be found and brought under rational control.

The Hawthorne Experiments (Trahair, 1984: 225-6)

The experiments began in 1927 at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois (1927-1932). Mayo joined in early 1928.  The Western Electric Company, manufacturer of telephone equipment at its Hawthorne Works, had a policy of high wages and good working conditions for employees and of using modern placement techniques.  For twenty years before the research began, mangers considered general morale high among employees and the incidence of industrial conflict infrequent.

In collaboration with the National Research Council the company studied the relationship between the intensity of illumination at work and the output of workers.  No simple direct relations appeared because many psychological factors interfered.  To control them, especially the factor of fatigue, researchers asked six girls to work in a test room away from their regular department; to be subject to changes in working hours, rest pauses, and other conditions; and to have their comments on work recorded while their output was measured. The girls agreed. Five girls assembled telephone relays, one supplied the parts.  For five years, beginning in April 1927, accurate records were kept of the number of the relays made, temperature and humidity of the test room, medical and personal histories, eating and sleeping habits, and snatches of conversation on the job. No one supervised the girls; instead, a test room observer, and later his assistants, kept records, arranged work, and tried to keep up the spirit of cooperation among the girls. The girls were told to work as they felt and at a comfortable pace, and only with their consent would changes be made in their work.

First, the researchers measured productive capacity by recording the girls' output for two weeks before the test-room study began. Then for the first five weeks no changes at work were made so that the mere effect on output of being transferred was known. At the third stage, a pay system was introduced that ensured each girl's earnings were in proportion to her efforts, thereby centering her financial interests on the study.  Eight weeks later, two five-minute rest pauses -- one at 10 a.m., the other at 2 p.m. -- were introduced.  Next, the girls were given a light lunch in the mid-morning and afternoon pauses.  In the eight phase, the workday ended a half-hour early; in the ninth, the girls finished an hour earlier than usual. Then a five-day week was introduced and it ran through the summer of 1928. Results showed an unexpected gradual rise in daily output. The researchers, believing that something other than the changes had affected the output, asked the girls if they would return to the original work conditions, i.e., no pauses or lunches and a full work week.  The girls agreed, and for twelve weeks output declined, but not to its original level.

The researchers expected that if output rate were directly related to the physical conditions at work, then identical conditions would produce similar output rates. Instead, the girls' output rose from one phase of the study to the next.  It remained on a high plateau until the depression ended the study in 1933.  Within the limits of the test room, physical changes appeared to have no effect on output rate.

Researchers concluded that changes in output could be attributed to changes not only in work conditions but also work attitudes and social relations.  They believed that the girls' behaviors were related not to the technical but the social organization of work.  The girls had no close supervision, and always had the chance to originate and participate in decisions affecting their work.  Mayo (1945, p. 72) explained that: 

What actually happened was that six individuals became a team and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to cooperation in the experiment. The consequence was that they felt themselves to be participating freely and without afterthought, and were happy in the knowledge that they were working without coercion from above or limitation from below.

According to Trahair (1984: 356-7), at Hawthorne, Mayo did not initiate, direct, or control research.  He played four distinct roles:

  1. Appreciative helper. For the first 18 months he was an "appreciative helper." He visited Hawthorne to study the physiology of the women at work in the relay assembly test room, but beyond that he advised on the health of a woman no longer in the study.
  2. Counselor-cum-publicist During the next 15 months he was a "counselor-cum-publicist." He counseled executives on family and work problems, praised the study, thereby helping its status within the Western Electric Company, and publicized the results so that the research gained prestige in the United States and Europe.
  3. Cooperative collaborator.  For almost 30 months he was a "cooperative collaborator." He encouraged the exchange of personnel between Harvard and Hawthorne and laid the social basis for joint activities.
  4. Protective supporter During the four years of close association with the Hawthorne Works, Mayo was a "protective supporter." He helped the researchers to endure destructive criticism of their work from inside the company and out, and to tolerate their own doubts about the value of their work.

Human Relations at Work

Current problems at work are rooted in social disintegration.  This process began when industrialization increased labor mobility and weakened communal ties, isolated family life, organized work so that obsessions (e.g., worker and management interests are and should be at odds) dominated mental life, and justified all these changes by placing a high value on economic growth.  The practical consequences of destroying social functions for individuals are divorce, crime, irregular living, resentment, and paranoia.  Because labor is highly mobile, the society disintegrates, social functions blur, and, consequently, individuals become maladjusted.  At work, problems of industrial control arise because complex organizations curb craftsmen's initiative and autonomy, devalue their intelligence and skill, create monotonous tasks, and, as compensation, offer only money and leisure time. Consequently, workers do not recognize that between them and management must exist a knowledge of common interests from which would emerge mutual confidence, trust, and effective collaboration.  Instead, workers focus on undermining management by restricting their output. Management, in turn, do not appreciate how strong a need for belonging exists in their workers' minds and hearts.

The thesis of these HR writers is aptly captured by Mayo (1945, p. 10):

 ... problems of absenteeism, labor turnover, 'wildcat' strikes, show that we do not know how to ensure spontaneity of cooperation; that is teamwork. Therefore, collaboration in an industrial society cannot be left to chance...

The single most important discovery of the Hawthorne experiments was that workers had a strong need to cooperate and communicate with fellow workers. In Mayo's words (1945, p. 112), "... the eager human desire for cooperative activity still persists in the ordinary person and can be utilized by intelligent and straightforward management." The best vehicle to its achieving was informal groups (rather than formal work teams), as they provided their members with the basic needs for communication and cooperation. Yet management should be aware that once forged, the group maintained a strong grip over worker behaviors and attitudes (productivity).

... the working group as a whole actually determined the output of individual workers by reference to a standard, predetermined but never clearly stated, that represented the group conception (rather than management's) of a fair day's work. This standard was rarely, if ever, in accord with the standards of the efficiency engineers (Mayo, 1945, p. 79).

Taylor strived to minimize the likelihood and effect of the informal group, Mayo wished to harness it (in a limited way), and TQM experts have formalized it and expanded its boundaries.

The Emergence of the "Social Man:"
Implications for Managers

The Human Relations movement emphasized emotional aspects in human behavior, yet still maintained the division of labor between those who planned and those who executed. Being intellectually conservative, Human Relations advocates worked from assumptions of underlying employee-employer harmony. They attributed restriction of output to the poor communication between workers and managers, and inadequate attention to the human side of worker. The latter resulted in a "false consciousness," whereby workers failed to appreciate that their interests were identical to their managers'. To solve these problems, managers should facilitate the formation of informal groups and be accepted as figures of authority (managers should become culture builders). "... the age-old human desire for persistence of human association will seriously complicate the development of an adaptive society if we cannot devise systematic methods of easing individuals from one group of associates to another," argues Mayo (1945, p. 81). "Management," he continues, "in any continuously successful plant, is not related to single workers but always to working groups."  Therefore, a major "preoccupation of management must be that of organizing teamwork, that is to say, of developing and sustaining cooperation" (ibid, p. 84).

To be able to facilitate teamwork (i.e., the formation of informal groups), management was provided with a new set of tools -- social skills (ibid, pp. 19, 20). Managers have to be patient with their workers, listen to them, and avoid creating emotional upsets (ibid, pp. 108-9).

Authority therefore in actual exercise demands a capacity for vision and wise guidance that must be re-achieved daily: since the cooperation of others is a vital element in it, social understanding and social skill are involved equally with technical knowledge and capacity. ... we do nothing whatever to develop social insight or to impart social skill. Indeed we provide an education that operates to hinder the development of such skills. And the general public, business leaders, and politicians are left with the implication that mankind is an unorganized rabble upon which order must be imposed (Mayo, 1945, p. 50).

Managers should learn that employees' social needs were no less important than employees' economic needs and that the logic of cost efficiency should give some room to the logic of human sentiments. The good manager was the one who was able to blend technical expertise with social capabilities. The successful manager listened to his employees, introduced them to their new companions, and tried to get them congenial work associates (Mayo, 1945, p. 108). Such managers were able to facilitate the formation of informal groups and gain the cooperation of their workers (be accepted as figure heads and leaders) (Mayo, 1945, p. 9).

Like Taylor, the Human Relations advocates wanted to rationalize management in order to increase workers' effort at work. However, their underlying assumptions were quite different. Taylor believed in the "rabble hypothesis" -- Natural society consists of a horde of unorganized individuals; every individual acts in a manner calculated to secure his self-interest; every individual thinks logically, to the best of his ability, in the service of this aim. This is why the best way to induce workers to work harder is to offer them more money.

HR writers, on the other hand, dismissed the centrality of the cash nexus and instead emphasized culture, interpersonal relations, and group coherence as the determinants of worker performance. Mayo claimed that the rabble hypothesis that guided neo-classical economists is based on a non-normal situation of total social disintegration (Mayo, 1945, pp. 40-44). The proponents of the rabble hypothesis "have small knowledge-of-acquaintance (as opposed to knowledge about) of various social situations, a negligible equipment of social skill, and are able to ignore the facts of human organization, and the extreme importance of these facts for him who would direct the work and thought of others" (Mayo, 1945, p. 46).

In Mayo's (1945, p. 111) words:

Man's desire to be continuously associated in work with his fellows is a strong, if not the strongest, human characteristic. Any disregard of it by management or any ill-advised attempt to defeat this human impulse leads instantly to some form of defeat for management itself.

People resort to self-interest when social associations have failed them (Mayo, 1945, p. 43). In short, Taylor's economic man gave way to the social man while the ultimate target remained intact -- the rationalization of the managerial profession.


Mayo believed that industrialization and destruction of craft systems had caused social disintegration and normless, maladjusted behavior. In the past, men had lived in communities where their work was a part of communal life and their morale and amusements derived from a sense of solidarity among themselves and service to the community.  But today, men drift with no plans, go where work takes them, and must live in a society with an unstable economy. Because communal life outside work is neglected, it becomes urgently needed within the workplace; the need raises the requisites of working together; cooperation and collaboration (Trahair, 1984: 254).

But at work, the worker-management adversarial relationship stemmed from workers' misunderstanding and distrust of management. Management contributed to this situation by being more concerned with economic efficiency than with social solidarity, thereby driving alienated workers to seek asylum in informal work groups. These groups were then used to undermine management. Mayo's prognosis was twofold -- management should acquire social skills, and use them to secure workers' cooperation. The primary vehicle to its achievement is informal groups. Thus, nurturing supervisors can adjust workers to bureaucratic life by facilitating the creation of informal work groups, and then taking control over them. Eventually, if properly done, management should be able to align workers' interests with management's. Workers would become convinced that managers were on their side, and that organizational bureaucracies were communities of producers. This should result in workers having a sense of participation, a feeling of release from constraint, and a desire to advance the organization's (i.e., management's) interests. But specialized jobs and existing power structures would remain intact. Workers would participate only in marginal decisions, in choosing such things as the colors of restroom walls, not in any strategic decisions.

In other words, little emphasis was placed on problem solving and the process improvements that play such an important role today.  Perhaps because of its limited and manipulative objectives, the human relations movement waned in the 1950s.  Although Mayo's contribution had had a pervasive effect on managerial ideology, it's effect on managerial practices was rather limited.

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