Elton Mayo and Human Relations Theory

Human relations theory is largely seen to have been born as a result of the Hawthorne experiments which Elton Mayo conducted at the Western Electrical Company. However, the so called “Hawthorne Effect” was not foreseen by the study. Instead, the Western Electrical Company wished to show that a greater level of illumination in a working area improved productivity, hence encouraging employers to spend more money on electricity from the company. As such, they carried out a study of how productivity varied with illumination levels. However, the results of the study showed that any changes in light levels tended to increase productivity levels, and the productivity level also increased significantly within the control group. This was completely the opposite of what Mayo expected, and created an entirely new branch of management theory. The core aspect of Human Relations Theory is that, when workers were being observed and included in the research, they felt more important and valued by the company. As a result, their productivity levels went up significantly. This represented a significant departure from many of the classical theories, particularly Fordism, as it went against the notion that management needed to control workers, and remove their autonomy at every step. Instead, it showed that by engaging with workers and considering their requirements and needs, company’s could benefit from increased productivity.

Another important part of human relations theory came from the other one of Mayo’s experiments: the bank wiring experiment. This experiment involved monitoring the production of a group of workers who were working as a group to produce electrical components. This investigation showed that, as believed by Taylor and Ford, the group as a whole decided on the level of production, purposely failing to produce their maximum output in spite of the potential bonus which was offered by management. This indicated that factors such as peer pressure, and the desire for harmony within the group, overrode any economic considerations which the workers held. This study also first drew management theorists’ focus to the informal aspect of the organisation, and the important role that it played in productivity. However, Mayo argued that managers needed to encourage good communication with workers and develop a connection with their employees, which runs counter to Taylor and Ford’s claims that managers needed to focus on organisational goals and completely control the workers. Mayo argued that Taylor and Ford’s techniques would boost productivity, but only to a certain level. In order to go above this level, workers needed to feel that they were valued more than simply on a monetary basis.

The concept that managers need to become involved with workers at a more individual level is at the core of human relations theory, and is what differentiates it from scientific management theory. Indeed, the vast majority of management literature since these competing theories emerged has been dominated by two points of view. The first is that workers will not support management attempts to get them to be more productive, and hence management needs to take control of the working process itself, hence leading to scientific management approaches. The second is that productivity is largely determined by social and group norms, and by tapping into these norms and fulfilling their workers’ needs, managers can encourage employees to motivate themselves to work harder and be more productive.

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