Organization Theory

The Human Relations School of Organization Theory

The Human Relations School recognized the social nature of organizations; gave greater emphasis to individual and group relationship in the workplace and pointed out the role of psychology Opens in new window and sociology in the understanding of individual and group behavior Opens in new window in an organization Opens in new window.

The second major step on the way to current organizational theory Opens in new window was the Human Relations Movement that began in the 1930s and continued in various forms until the 1950s.

The practice of management, which places heavy emphasis on employee cooperation and morale, might be classified as human relations. Raymond Mills states that the human relation approach was simply to

“treat people as human beings (instead of machines in the productive process), acknowledge their needs to belong and to feel important by listening to and heeding their complaints where possible and by involving them in certain decisions concerning working conditions and other matters, then morale would surely improve and workers would cooperate with management in achieving good production”.

The chief contributors to the Human Relations School, as well as their contributions are discussed below.

1.     Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Studies

The Human Relations Movement, popularized by Elton Mayo Opens in new window and his famous Hawthorne studies Opens in new window conducted at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company Opens in new window, in many ways remained the foundation of much of our management thinking today.

Before the Hawthorne studies officially started, Elton Mayo headed a research team, which was investigating the causes of very high turnover in the mule-spinning department of a Philadelphia textile mill in 1923 and 1923. After interviewing and consulting the workers, the team set up a series of rest pauses, which resulted in greatly reduced turnover and more positive worker attitudes and morale.

2.     Illumination Experiments

The initial experiments reflected strongly the physical orientation of scientific management, since they were designed to explore the relationship between lighting and productivity.

The rational approach of scientific management predicted a positive relationship i.e., as lighting increased, productivity would increase up to a point of course. Logically, at some (high) level of illumination productivity should begin to decline, so the original experiment was designed to determine the optimal level of illumination.

The light experiments were conducted on female workers, who were divided into two groups. One group was placed in a test room where the intensity of illumination was varied, and the other group worked in a control room with supposedly constant conditions.

The results were baffling to the researchers.

The researchers found no predictable relationship between lighting and output. And because the research results could not be explained by existing knowledge, the researchers were forced to find new explanation.

Further research indicated that the lack of a predictable relationship between lighting and output was related to the mental and emotional side of organizations rather than the physical, mechanistic side recognized by scientific management.

Additional studies showed that economic factors, such as incentive systems, were equally poor in predicting behavior.

3.    Relay Room Experiments

Intrigued with positive changes in productivity, some of the engineers and company officials decided to attempt to determine the causes through further studies. Accordingly, a second set of experiments took place between 1927 and 1933 known as the Relay Room experiments.

The most famous study involved five girls assembling electrical relays in the Relay Assembly Test Room, a special room away from other workers where the researchers could alter work conditions and evaluate the results.

During the experiment, the girls were often consulted and sometimes allowed to express themselves about the changes that took place in the experiment. Apparently, the researchers were concerned about possible negative reactions and resistance from the workers who would be included in the experiment.

To lessen potential resistance, the researchers changed the usual supervisory arrangement so that there would be no official supervisor; rather, the workers would operate under the general direction of the experimenter.

The workers also were given special privileges such as being able to leave their workstation without permission, and they received considerable attention from the experimenters and company officials. In total, they were treated and recognized as individuals with something to contribute.

The study was aimed at exploring the best combination of work and rest periods, but a number of other factors were also varied, such as pay, length of the workday, and provisions for free lunches. Generally, productivity increased over the period of the study, regardless of how the factors under consideration were manipulated.

The results in the relay room were practically identical with those in the illumination experiment. Each test period yielded higher productivity than the previous one had done. Even when the girls were subjected to the original conditions of the experiment, productivity increased.

The conclusion was that the independent variables (rest pauses and so forth) were not by themselves causing the change in the dependent variable (output).

One outcome of the studies was the identification of a famous concept that ultimately came to be known as the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect refers to the possibility that individuals singled out for a study may improve their performance simply because of the added attention they receive from the researchers, rather than because of any specific factors being tested in the study.

More contemporary investigations now suggest that the Hawthorne effect concept is too simplistic to explain what happened during the Hawthorne studies and that the Hawthorne effect concept itself is defective. In the Hawthorne situation, the workers likely viewed the altered supervision as an important positive change in their work environment, even though that was not what the researchers intended.

4.    Bank Wiring Room Study

The final phase of the research program was the bank wiring study, which started in November 1931 and lasted until May 1932. Its primary purpose was to make observational analysis of the informal work group.

A group of male workers in the study provided knowledge about informal social relations within groups and about group norms that restrict output when such steps seem advantageous to the group. It also included a massive interviewing program (1928 – 1931) that was initially aimed at improving supervision but evolved into a means of learning what workers had on their minds and allowing them to get rid of steam.

The results in the bank wiring room were essentially opposite to those in the relay room. The output was actually restricted by the bank wirers. By scientific management analysis, a standard of 7,312 terminal connections per day had been arrived at. This represented 21/2 equipments. The workers had a different brand of rationality. They decided that 2 equipments was a “proper” days work.

The researchers determined that the informal group norm of 2 equipments represented restriction of output rather than a lack of ability to produce 21/2 equipments. The following evidence supports this contention:

  1. The observer noted that all the men stopped before quitting time.
  2. Most of the men admitted to the interviewer they could easily turn out more work.
  3. Tests of dexterity and intelligence indicated no relationship between capacity to perform and actual performance.

Assessing the Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne studies have been severely criticized mainly because the studies often had major flaws (such as changing factors at the same time) and because important data were sometimes ignored in drawing conclusions (especially in discounting the potential importance of pay).

The Human Relations movement, like Scientific Management, is not without its shortcomings. Because of the nature of its findings and the resulting lessons for managers, it has been criticized as “cow sociology” (so called because happy cows presumably give more milk). This simplistic view of the relationship between morale and productivity is something that existing research has not been able to verify.

Yet, despite their shortcomings, the effects of these pioneering studies were far-reaching. In strong contrast to the impersonality that characterized the classical approach, the Hawthorne studies pointed to the impact that social aspects of the job had on productivity, particularly the effect of personal attention from supervisors and relationship among group members.

As a result, the focus of the field of management was drastically altered. A common interpretation of the Human Relations movement is that managers need only treat their employees well to generate maximum productivity. This conclusion is unfortunate for two reasons.

  1. It is oversimplified and therefore often inaccurate.
  2. Those who do not agree with this conclusion might be labeled advocates of poor treatment of employees – which, of course, is also false.