The human relations movement was a natural response to some of the issues related to scientific management and the under-socialized view of the worker that ignored social aspects of work. The key uniting characteristics of Taylor, Weber, and Fayol were the ideas of efficiency produced through either operational, legal, or administrative improvements. One of the principal assumptions was an emphasis on rationality.1Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, “Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies.” Journalof Occupational Behavior, 1985, 6, 111-130. According to scientific management, there was a logic to actions, and formal and knowledge authority were the principal catalysts of workplace motivation. Scientific management tended to downplay the effects of social pressures on human interactions.2Wren, D. A., & Bedeian, A. G. 2009. The evolution of management thought. (6th ed.), New York: Wiley. The human relations movement enhanced scientific management because it acknowledged that peoples’ attitudes, perceptions, and desires play a role in their workplace performance. With this acknowledgment, for example, managers began to realize that settling disputes was more difficult than the scientific management approach described.
The major difference between scientific management and human relations theory was that human relations theory recognized that social factors were a source of power in the workplace. While Taylor recognized the existence of social pressures in an organization, he sought to diminish them through pay, that is, compensating workers for production even though social pressure forced workers to reduce production. Fayol recognized the existence of social issues as well, but he emphasized commitment to the organization as a management technique rather than commitment of workers to each other or to their supervisor. Weber placed emphasis on the rule of law and believed that laws and regulations would guide society and corporations. Yet he did not spend enough energy recognizing the outcomes that happen when rules break down. Fayol and Weber did not recognize the role of corporate culture in an organization and did not examine more closely why workers do not follow orders. The human relations movement added more of the social element to the study and theory of work.3Wren, D. A., & Bedeian, A. G. 2009. The evolution of management thought. (6th ed.), New York: Wiley.
Perhaps no research studies have been as misunderstood as the Hawthorne studies. The Hawthorne studies are the most influential, misunderstood, and criticized research experiment in all of the social sciences. The legend goes that Elton Mayo (1880–1949) researched, theorized, and developed human relations theory based on a 1924–1932 experiment he conducted at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero Illinois. However, there is very little of the legend that is true. The truth is more complicated and difficult to understand. Most textbooks claim that Mayo researched and conducted the studies. Yet this is fiction. The studies were commenced by scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mayo did not become involved until 1927. Nevertheless, it is Mayo’s vision of Hawthorne that has come to dominate the literature.
The first phase of the Hawthorne studies was called the illumination study, and it sought to measure the impact of light upon productivity. The study was inconclusive because there were too many variables other than light that could have affected worker productivity. The researchers had difficulty understanding why productivity increased. The second phase of the study was called the relay-assembly-test-room, and these experiments were carried out in a room where researchers tested the effect that working conditions such as breaks, length of the workday, company-provided lunches, and payment method had on productivity. They selected six young female workers to be part of a team that produced a phone relay switch. Each woman was young and unlikely to be married any time soon. One woman was assigned to gather the parts to make the switch, and each of the other five women was assigned to assemble one component of the phone relay. The researchers found that production increased regardless of what variable was manipulated. Nevertheless, soldiering still occurred during the experiment. After two workers were fired for a health issue and getting married, production increased even more. The results were surprising to the researchers: they had expected to see a reduction but instead saw a consistent increase.
The Hawthorne executives turned to Mayo, an Australian psychologist from Harvard University, to explain the puzzling results. Most of the controversy regarding the Hawthorne studies stems from Mayo’s involvement. Mayo observed that production could be increased if management understood the role of individual workers’ attitudes toward work and also took into account how group attitudes affected behavior. Mayo theorized that social issues and attention paid by the supervisor to these issues played a role in increasing production. The Hawthorne women were granted freedoms at work, including the ability to make suggestions regarding their work conditions. Many of the Hawthorne women felt that they were special and that if they performed well on the relay assembly task, they would be treated better by the company’s management. Additionally, the Hawthorne women became very friendly with each other. Their connection as a team and increased satisfaction in their work appeared to drive the women to greater performance. Yet the study found that financial incentives were a clear driver of performance as well.
A third study, called the bank wiring room study, was conducted between 1931 and 1932. Rather than being selected to form a new group, participants in the bank wiring room study consisted of an already existing group, one that had a number of bad behaviors. Regardless of financial incentives, group members decided that they would only produce 6,000 to 6,600 connections a day. Workers who produced more were ostracized or hit on the arm to lower production. George Homans summarized the difference in the results of the relay assembly and the bank wiring room experiments:
“Both groups developed an informal social organization, but while the Bank Wiremen were organized in opposition to management, the Relay Assemblers were organized in cooperation with management in the pursuit of a common purpose. Finally, the responses of the two groups to their industrial situation were, on the one hand, restriction of output and, on the other, steady and welcome increase of output. These contrasts carry their own lesson.”
Researchers found that cliques were formed that placed informal rules on the workers within a group. According to Homans, the workers also made a connection with one of the managers to control production. The discovery that management could ally themselves with the workforce to limit production was a notable contribution to management thought at the time. It suggests that managerial authority can break down if the manager disagrees with management’s policy toward the workers.
What did the studies mean? On some level, they were meaningless because they proved little. Indeed, they have been called scientifically worthless. There were too many variables being manipulated; the sample size was too small; observations were collected at random; the Hawthorne researchers viewed the experiments through their own ideological lenses. They made mistakes in assuming that that the wage was insignificant to the workers, when in reality the wage was a significant driving force. Yet these criticisms ignore two major facts about the Hawthorne studies. The first is that the Hawthorne studies were the first to focus on the actual work life of the workers. This was a notable change in sociological research. The second fact is that the studies were intended to generate future research, and future research did discover that attitudes play a major role in determining workplace outcomes. Another important finding concerned the role of the supervisor. Many worker behaviors, attitudes, and emotions have their genesis in their supervisor’s actions. Stress and fatigue can be the result of interactions with supervisors and coworkers; they are not just a response to less-than-ideal physical conditions. Finally, the Hawthorne studies showed that work motivation is a function of a wide variety of factors, including pay, social relationships, meaning, interests, and attitudes.
Management 2020 text remixed from multiple sources under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. View a complete list of original sources.