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Human Relations Theory

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In the 1930s, the human relations movement challenged the scientific management theories of Taylor by emphasising the human dimension of management and highlighting the importance of interpersonal factors — such as leadership styles, group social structures and group norms.

Ironically, it was scientific studies that eventually gave rise to management theories diametrically opposed to the scientific and classical theories.

Elton Mayo (1880-1949)

One of the people involved in initiating the human relations movement was the Australian social scientist, Elton Mayo. His studies at the Chicago Hawthorne plant of Western Electric in the USA, marked the birth of the movement. For the first time attention was called to the importance of the interpersonal environment at work.

The Hawthorne studies

Beginning in 1927 and continuing for five years, the Hawthorne studies were implemented to investigate 'the relation between conditions of work and the incidence of fatigue and monotony among employees'. Elton Mayo and his associates from Harvard — all social scientists — set out to assess the influence of physical factors such as temperature, light and humidity at the workplace and the relationship of rest periods to subsequent efficiency on the job.

Small groups of employees were carefully selected for the experiments, their working conditions manipulated and the subsequent results recorded. During the first year of the experiment, the researchers were surprised to discover that no matter what changes were made in the working environment — whether it were made more pleasant or unpleasant — job efficiency increased! This phenomenon was called the Hawthorne effect: employees will perform more efficiently simply because they are given special attention. Those who were singled out for the experiments, even though they were chosen to represent a cross-section of 'average' workers, paid more attention to their jobs simply because they were singled out.

The importance of interpersonal factors

Because of the unexpected results of the initial studies, the Hawthorne experiments were extended for an additional four years. The researchers found that there were influences affecting efficiency and productivity much more strongly than working conditions — namely: group social structures, group norms and group pressures. Even when wages were lowered, for example, productivity would increase when group acceptance was at stake. We can illustrate the results of the Hawthorne studies as follows:

Conditioning at Work

The meaning workers assigned to a change depended on their social conditioning (values, hopes, fears) outside the work environment and upon the social situation at work (the work group norms and pressures).

The researchers concluded that the most important reason for the increased productivity was the change in supervision from an authoritarian style to a more permissive, democratic style. As a result of the increased attention and more permissive management, the test group employees began to view themselves as participating members of a cohesive work group. The interpersonal relationships, which developed in the work groups, brought out feelings of affiliation (‘belonging’) and achievement — needs that were not met under the more authoritarian leadership style.

The Manager's Role

The role of the manager in human relations theory is to facilitate co-operation and group goal attainment while providing employees opportunities to fulfil their personal needs and develop themselves. A democratic style of leadership is implicit in this theory. Management emphasis is placed on fringe benefits, physical surroundings and on the social system. Every attempt is made to make employees happy and comfortable.


The major limitation of the human relations movement is that it ignores the economic realities of running a productive business. A happy work group is not always a productive work group — and human relations theorists didn't go far enough in examining the real motivations of people.


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