The human relations movement in industry began with the research of Elton Mayo and his associate in a series of studies carried out at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company between 1927 and 1932. The background of the Hawthorne experiments provides an interesting picture of the transition from scientific management to the early human relations movement.
Mayo revealed that an organisation was more than a formal structure or arrangement of functions. He wrote that an organisation is a social system, a system of cliques, grapevines informal status systems rituals and a mixture of logical, non-logical and illogical behaviour.
The basic studies by Mayo and his group took place over a five year period and covered three phases: (1) the relay assembly test room experiment, (2) the interviewing program, and (3) the bank wining observation room. The relay assembly test room experiment involved the prolonged observation of six girls making telephone assemblies.
A series of studies were undertaken to determine the effects on output of working conditions, length of working day, frequency and length of rest periods, and other factors relating to the physical environment. As these studies continued, it was found that regardless of variations in these conditions, production increased.
Even more astounding production continued to increase even after the girls were returned to the original conditions with longer working days, without rest pauses, and with poor surroundings. Mayo and his group hypothesized that the increased production was a result of changed social situations of the workers, modifications in their motivation and satisfaction and differing patterns of supervision.
This led to the second stage of the Hawthorne studies, in which over 21,000 people were interviewed during a three year period. It was initially started as directed interview but moved toward non-directive in-depth interviewing. Although this phase of the program did not lead to a quantifiable result.
Another famous experiment involved a group of employees engaged in installing electrical wiring in a manufacturing operation. The researchers observed that the workers split themselves spontaneously into one group of individuals who considered themselves an elite group, and another group composed of the remaining workers who believed that they had lower status.
The social organisation that emerged in the wring room determined the entire group’s output, their relationships with superiors and the relationships between individual members and the cliques within the group. The group’s general objective was to protect the members as well as to enforce conformity to the group’s norms.
The groups presented a united front resisting suggestion of change firm supervisors. This experiment demonstrated the power of social pressure to alter supervisory demands and to influence the behaviour of individuals in work-groups.
The Hawthorne studies identified the need to focus on the organisation as a social system that has both a formal and an informal structure. People are individuals who have psychological as well as social needs. Group pressure (social control) determines the norms to which members of the group must adhere.
By this means, the group can protect its members against excessive control by management and against pressure to increase output through change. These studies found that the interests of management and employees may indeed be different and the employees must be provided with psychological in addition to economic means to gain satisfaction on the job.
Other researchers have accused the proponents of human relations of glad-handing and using the image of ‘Contended Cows’ as a standard for working conditions. The critics have pointed out that the Hawthorne and similar studies gave little attention to the union movement.
As a result, the researches involved with the Western Electric Company and subsequently behavioural and social scientists generally have been accused, perhaps unjustifiably, or “selling out” to management.
In any case, the human relations movement was responsible for introducing the social and behavioural science into business and industrial management. This trend has continued even today.
The behavioural scientists have been contributing to our knowledge of organisational dynamics change since the day of the Hawthorne studies. Some of the great names in this school are Carl Rogers, J.L. Moreno, Kurt Lewin and A. H. Maslow.
Rogers is well known for his clinical approach to counseling therapy, and Moreno for his studies of interpersonal relations; Lewin and his followers pioneered the action research approach to organisation’s development. Their contributions to group dynamics and field theory have inspired researches in the field of behavioural change through such methods as sensitivity training and other group approaches.
Maslow’s theory of motivation has exerted strong influence on studies of organisational behaviour. He postulated a hierarchy of needs in an ascending order from basic economic and survival needs to social, self-esteem, and self actualisation needs.
One of the most profound and insightful treatise on organisation and management was written by Chester Bernard, based upon his many years of experience as president of the New Jersey Bell Company. Barnard can be called a transitionalist between traditional management theory and the evolving behavioural concepts.
Barnard was very critical of the existing classical organisation theory because it was too descriptive and superficial. He was especially dissatisfied with the classical view that authority came from the top down. Utilizing a more analytical approach, he took an opposite viewpoint. He maintained that authority came from the bottom up.
Furthermore, he cited four conditions that must be met before a person will decide to accept a communication as being authoritative:
1. He can and does understand the communication.
2. At the time of his decision he believes that it is not inconsistent with the purpose of the organisation.
3. At the time of his decision he believes it to be compatible with his personal interest as a whole.
4. He is able mentally and physically to comply with it.
“Informal organization refers either to the social relations that develop among the staff for workers above and beyond the formal one determined by the organization…. or to the actual organizational relations as they evolve as a consequence of the inter-action between the organizational designs and the pressures of the inter-personal relations among the participants.”
This analysis has became known as the ‘acceptance theory of authority’. Barnard recognised that not every executive order can be consciously analyzed, judged, and either accepted or registered. Rather most types of orders fall within a person’s “zone of indifference.” If an order falls outside the zone, he will question and accept or reject it. The width of the zone depends upon the degree to which the inducements exceed the burdens and sacrifices.
Besides authority, Barnard stressed the cooperative aspects of organisation. This concern reflects the importance which he believed the human element has in organisational structure and analysis.
It was Barnard’s contention that the existence of a cooperative system was contingent upon the human participant’s ability to communicate and willingness to serve and strive towards a common purpose. Under such a premise, the human being plays the most important role in the creation and perpetuation of formal organisation.
Barnard’s analysis has had a lasting impact on the theory of organisation. In ‘The Functions of the Executive’, he accomplished his purpose, which was summarized by Wolf as follows:
“The book itself is sociology of management. Its style of writing was purposely pitched at a “high level of discourse”. Barnard was writing for social scientists, not for practitioners. He believed the field of management was lacking in concepts and was clouded by ambiguous and even erroneous thinking. In a sense, he hoped that the Functions would set things right and guide the social scientists to more realistic studies of organisation and management.