Human Relations School
Founding Research

And Criticism

Elton Mayo is generally seen as the founder of Industrial Sociology and the Human Relations School of business organisation. His research on groups and behaviour in work has had direct implications for management of organisations and for sociology. He studied a spinning mill in Philadelphia and the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago.

His research was initially straightforward and practical. The spinning mill in one department had a labour turnover of 250% compared with an average of 6% for all the other departments. Both rest periods and workers' involvement in fixing these increased morale and reduced labour turnover. After a year the spinning mill was with the average at 6%. His conclusion was instrumentalist in that it was put down to the mentally refreshing nature of the rest breaks.

The Hawthorne Experiment carried out between 1927 and 1932 changed this view. Before Elton Mayo began there were experiments comparing two groups, one where lighting conditions were held static and one where lighting conditions were varied. Both groups increased output!

Mayo's team began. In the Relay Assembly Test Room six female workers, who assembled telephone relays, were segregated out. Over five years changes were made and they were monitored for production and morale. Examples within ten changes were a special group incentive scheme instead of being linked with one hundred other operatives, rest pauses altered in length and frequency, shorter hours and refreshments. Now there was always full discussion and consultation about the changes. No matter what happened, output increased each time.

When, with consulation, the conditions went back to a 48 hour six day week without incentives, rest breaks and refreshments output reached a maximum.

So, obviously, this had nothing to do with the material conditions and an instrumental explanation could not be sustained.

What mattered was that the six had been consulted; they had a sense of freedom and control over the work rate; they were a self-referential interacting group; and the women in their cohesion and decision making were in effect rewarding the researchers for their interest in them with what they considered were desired increases in output.

For some time this baffled the researchers and everyone else.  There were systematic interviews which revealed much about attitudes and little about working conditions. The workers had emotional responses to what the management did. Mayo called this the logic of sentiment held by the workers whilst the management focussed on the logic of cost and efficiency. They were clearly at cross purposes in terms of approach and response. The researchers however, in their consultations and giving the workers a sense of self-importance, had in their method stumbled across more of a meeting of minds. If they were part of the management, it was management that reached the logic of sentiment, as it was called.

Then the later called Bank Wiring Observation Room came under constant observation without any experimental inputs. These workers did the opposite, a group which held back their production and where no individual fell out of line. They did not respond to financial incentives. Basically, they collectively resisted the managers. However, again, this was an informal social group deciding its response.

So was Elton Mayo's explanation: that a principal unit of worker organisation is informal, and that this transcends individual self interest. The individualism of economics is wrong. Certainly satisfaction in the workplace comes from the informal social pattern mixed with the interest placed in them. The female workers assembling telephone relays felt important. The actual work conditions were not important in comparison. Equally the informal social group can resist dictats from on high with their cost and profit rationale.

It goes much further. This form of co-operative organising (this is the sociological bit) might replace the decline in traditional values. So good purposeful management is not only going to increase efficiency and output, but through organising spontaneous cooperation can prevent any breakdown of society. Traditional attachments to community and family can be replaced by good work organisation which aims to reduce conflict, competition and disagreement. This meant spontaneous co-operation and was the heart of Mayo's Human Relations movement.

The sociology of this is a critique of the alienation of modern work society especially in comparison with rural society. Mayo wants something of the rural society that valued work and association into modern urban industrial settings, and the small group in the work place was the way to do it.

The informal group is the key working centre. Human relations authority is in effect decentralised, and communication must go from the workers in their groups to the management. Authority rests in the workers to accept management. If that authority is given, then workers are more productive. If management is rejected, output is restricted. One way of achieiving higher output is through what is today called empowerment, or good communication and involvement of the workers in a consulation process and in team working that shares real responsibility.

Areas of Criticism

The first criticism was that Mayo often looked at industrial work among first and second generation immigrants whose alienation may have been sourced in this displacement.

Secondly, the return to a rural model seems regressive, a return to gemeinschaft. Is it not possible to consider the complexity of associations to tackle alienation in gesellschaft, as happens in contemporary Western societies?

These are broader sociological points, but there are points specifically related to business organisation. Bad management, organising and communication may not account for everything.

The place of trade unions is not considered in this analysis, which have such an important role in a free society including free people with market contracts inside organisations. It is normal, so to speak, to engage in levels of conflict as well as co-operation and test the boundaries when there is a free society. It is not all about harmonious integration. If the human relations approach does succeed in making workers more co-operative then it is likely to do this (on the some conflict approach) at their expense and give comparatively more power to management to do what they intend.

Immediately here is a consideration of power in society as reflected in organisations. There are structures and people are assigned positions within organisations: there is power play, conflict and the distribution of economic rewards. Analysis must go beyond the workplace itself to structures of society: human relations authority does not extend beyond work organisation in its analysis. Systems are not isolated. In fact, there was little in the way of wider theoretical analysis in this approach, which was heavily work-problem led.

So the apparent benevolence of management to make the decisions around which all can subscribe is problematic, because management and labour are part of broader social structures.


Human relations approaches have been challenged and extended by classifying different group types, as by Sayles, who looked at 300 work groups in 30 plants in the United States by interviews, observation and collected data. He found that group cohesion and behaviour depended on technology and work organisation, rather than by management abilities (from Parker et al., 1967, 109-110):

So organisation matters, which is why it works to change methods of organising and skill levels with responsibilities. This gets away from Mayo's assumption of harmony by focussing on conflict and management as other. (Parker et al., 1967, 110)

Lupton also looked byeond the confines of the organisation to realise one group in one business took on an incentive scheme on its terms (waterproof garments makers) while another fiddled it (small transformers assembly) (Parker et al., 1967, 110). The garments incentive scheme worked because it was Taylor like in being broken down to smallest parts, rapid and straight piecework, where individuals responded, but also because garments firms were competitive, seasonal, with high labour costs and there was high unemployment. A far more certain economic situation allowed greater control by workers to get control over the incentive scheme.

All this, then, suggests that human relations authority has to widen its vision, though it does not overrule its insights, just qualifies them and challenges internal only solutions.


Parker, S. R., Brown, R. K., Child, J., Smith, M. A. (1967), The Sociology of Industry, London: George Allen and Unwin, 99-112.

Refers to (here referred):

Lupton, T. (1963), On the Shop Floor, Oxford: Pergamon.

Sayles, L. R. (1958), Behaviour of Industrial Work Groups, New York: Wiley.


Pugh, D. S., Hickson, D. J., Hinings, C. R. (eds.) (1971), Writers on Organizations, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 126-130.

Refers to:

Mayo, E. (1933), The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Macmillan,

Mayo, E. (1949), The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Roethlisberger, F. J., and Dickson, W. J. (1949), Management & and the Worker, Harvard University Press.