Human Relations Theory

Picture yourself employed by a company with a strict and inflexible workflow. In such an environment, you’re not encouraged to propose innovative interpretations, and tasks can only be executed in a singular manner. Wouldn’t you experience a sense of being just a small, interchangeable part of a larger system?

What is Human Relations Theory?

Human Relations theory, also known as the “clinical approach” developed by Elton Mayo in the late 1920s as  a response to the shortcomings of classical management theories, such as scientific management and administrative theory. According to scientific management, there was a logic to actions and knowledge that boosted workplace motivation. In other words, efficiency was a result of operational, legal and administrative improvements.

At the time, Taylorism—scientific management advocated by Frederick W. Taylor—was the prevailing theory, which viewed workers as machines. It suggested that the best way for people (factory workers) to become efficient is to receive proper training and necessary tools. The human relations approach addressed these gaps by taking into consideration the social factors. It acknowledged that people’s perceptions, attitudes and expectations play a critical role in their workplace performance.

The theory is built on simple premise that the ‘human problem requires a human solution’, since happier workers are the secret to a successful organization. Unlike the traditional approach, which glorifies ‘Economic Man’, the human relations theory enthroned the ‘Social Man’. 

As per Elton Mayo, this theory underscores four key elements of organization, which the classical theorists seem to have overlooked. These are:

(a) Organization is to be viewed as a social system; 

(b) Workers are human beings with all humanly attributes; 

(c) Informal elements also play an important role in the overall organizational output; and 

(d) Organization has a social ethics, instead of individual ethics.

Elton Mayo’s major works include The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1933), The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1945), and The Political Problem of Industrial Civilization (1947).

The Hawthorne Experiments: A Milestone in Workplace Studies

Elton Mayo’s role as a Harvard professor allowed him to delve deep into various aspects of human behavior, but it’s his groundbreaking work in the Hawthorne experiments that truly stands out. Conducted in the early 1920s and late 1930s at the Hawthorne Electrical Company in Chicago, these experiments aimed to unravel the mysteries behind relatively modest productivity and output levels despite generous incentives and a pleasant work environment.

The Hawthorne studies encompassed several notable experiments:

The Great Illumination Experiment (1924–27): This study focused on how changes in lighting conditions affected worker productivity.

Relay Assembly Test Room Experiment (1927-28): Investigating the effects of changes in working hours and conditions on productivity.

Mass Interviewing Program or Human Attitudes and Sentiments (1928–31): A comprehensive plant-wide survey to gauge worker attitudes and sentiments.

Bank Wiring Experiment (1931–32): An in-depth analysis of the social dynamics at work within the context of bank wiring, conducted in an observation room.

Key Insights from the Hawthorne Experiments

Elton Mayo and his team drew several crucial conclusions from these experiments:

The Hawthorne Studies

a. Emphasis on Human Emotions: Workers place a significant value on human emotions, such as group loyalty and camaraderie, over purely physical or financial incentives offered by organizations.

b. Workers as Part of a Family: When organizations treat employees as integral members of a larger family, allowing them to freely express their opinions on personal goals, emotions, and sentiments, productivity and engagement tend to increase.

c. The Role of Informal Networks: Informal elements within an organization play a pivotal role in shaping its direction. The experiments highlighted the existence of informal unions among workers, which had a more substantial impact on productivity than economic incentives or personal motivations.

In essence, these workers formed tight-knit groups governed by their own code of conduct, rejecting those who disrupted the harmony within the group.

d. The Future: Participative Management: 

Elton Mayo’s research underscored the importance of participative management as the way forward for organizations. Encouraging employees to actively contribute to decision-making processes and fostering a sense of belonging proved to be key to improving workplace dynamics and productivity.

Further, Elton Mayo  also identified workers into three types as per their work, role and efficiency:

Rat Busters – Who work too much.

Cheslers – Too Little work

Squealer – Leaks out important and sensitive information.

Criticism of Human Relations theory by Elton Mayo

Critics contend that the foundation of human relations theory rested upon an inaccurate and oversimplified premise about organizations. Even United Auto Workers, an organization in the US, called it “Cow sociologists”.

Furthermore, human relations theory faces criticism for its lack of precision, excessive use of psychological terminology, distortion of the organizational context, and its reluctance to differentiate administrative aspects. Alex Carey and Daniel Sell considered this theory as defective.

In addition, Peter Ducker here criticized it due to lack of economic dimension awareness.

Human relations theory is accused of placing excessive emphasis on the human component of organizations, often at the expense of neglecting fundamental structural elements. 

Conclusion

Human Relations theory represented a significant shift in management thinking by recognizing the importance of understanding human behavior and social dynamics within organizations. By installing a humanistic conception of workers in factory units, the theory emphasized the significance of communication, motivation, leadership, and group dynamics. It aimed to create a more participative and inclusive work environment that valued workers as individuals and acknowledged their social and psychological needs. Elton Mayo here is rightly regarded as the “Father of Industrial Sociology”.

However, critics argue that the theory oversimplified organizational complexities and failed to address broader structural factors. Nonetheless, the Human Relations theory played a crucial role in shaping contemporary management practices, highlighting the significance of treating workers as more than mere cogs in the industrial machinery.

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Human Relations Theory By Elton Mayo

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