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This article describes the concept of the Human Relations Theory, developed by Elton Mayo in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful management tool.
Origins Human Relations Theory
The immediate period after World War Two saw a different approach in organisational studies.
Until that time, there was only talk of Scientific Management, which mainly focused on productivity, efficient division of labour and workers as an extension of machinery.
1950 saw a change to this discourse with the introduction of the Human Relations Theory. This movement saw workers in a different light; they were now seen as thinking beings with needs, who liked to receive attention. Companies realised that attention motivated employees and even allowed them to get more out of themselves for the benefit of the organisation.
The Hawthorne Experiment
Elton Mayo is considered the founder of the Human Relations Theory.
Prior to this trend, Elton Mayo already started an experiment in the Hawthorne plants in 1924; the Hawthorne experiment. There was a great deal of discontent among the 30,000 workers in the Hawthorne plants in Chicago in the early twenties of the last century. This was somewhat peculiar, because this phone parts plant already acted extremely progressively towards its workers (through pensions and sickness benefits), something which was almost unthinkable in this period.
They experimented with light, duration of breaks and working hours. A group of women were exposed to either more or less light. It turned out that, regardless of the amount and duration of lighting, this had a positive effect on their performances. The same was true for rest periods; shorter or longer breaks both led to an increase in labour productivity.
The conclusion drawn from the Hawthorne research was that giving attention to employees resulted in improved performances.
The group of workers who were involved in the search felt their voices heard and experienced a feeling of greater personal freedom. The workers were pleased that their assistance was requested, which they believed led to their higher job performances.
Moreover, during the study, senior officials regularly visited the workplace, making the workers feel like they belonged to a certain elite group. This personal attention stimulated the group to work even harder together and give their all for the organisation. Collaboration in an informal group is also one of the main aspects of the Human Relations Theory.
Elton Mayo concluded that the needs of workers were often based on sentiment (belonging to a group and thus having a sense of value) and that this could lead to conflicts with managers, who mainly focused on cost reduction and efficiency.
And thus he came to the following final conclusions:
- Individual employees must be seen as members of a group;
- Salary and good working conditions are less important for employees and a sense of belonging to a group;
- Informal groups in the workplace have a strong influence on the behaviour of employees in said group;
- Managers must take social needs, such as belonging to an (informal) group, seriously.
In the era of the Human Relations Theory, the concept of ‘labour motivation’ is given a new meaning compared to the Scientific Management era.
The fact that personal attention led to improved performances was a completely new perspective.
The term workers is gradually replaced with employee, which more explicitly implies that these people are thinking people who can positively contribute to the organisation.
Starting in the 1950s, a definitive different approach to management emerges. Employee behaviour is placed centrally and the Human Relations theory places strong emphasis on the fact that organisations consist of groups of people. Human Relations supporters thus replace the mechanistic perspective on management with a people-oriented perspective. Every person is unique and therefore unpredictable. Their behaviour is complex and to fully understand them it is important to recognise their personal motivations.
The way employees think and act at work is not only influenced by rules, procedures and requirements imposed by management.
Attention, respect, interest shown and social/ interpersonal relationships are just as important. These kind of human interactions trigger an emotional sense in employees, which is often referred to as a person’s soft side. This soft side consists of emotional or irrational logic and can strengthen rational logic, but at the same time also weaken or eliminate it. Rational logic focuses on production and effectiveness, and both can thus diametrically be opposed to each other, which in turn leads to internal conflicts and dilemmas.
The complexity of human behaviour increases even more if an employee indicates his desires and knows when he will make certain decisions. From a behavioural perspective, employees can also decide what behaviour they prefer and how this behaviour manifests itself. As a result, there is no single pattern that can automatically be associated with a specific situation.
Every person is very much different in terms of character and behaviour. Everyone has different values, standards and desires, which results in demonstrably different behaviour. This complex humanity is an important factor in guiding employees. It is therefore the task of managers to identify the individual needs of employees and act accordingly. This is the essence of the Human Relations Theory.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is the Human Relations Theory still applicable in today’s modern business world? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are your success factors for good employee attention and boosting related performance?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Mayo, E. (2014). The social problems of an industrial civilisation. Routledge.
- Mayo, E. (2004). The human problems of an industrial civilization. Routledge.
- Mayo, E. (1949). Hawthorne and the western electric company. Public Administration: Concepts and Cases, 149-158.
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