Human Relations Theory: Definition, History, Experiment, and Pros/Cons

What is Human Relations Theory?

The Human Relations Theory emphasizes valuing employees’ emotions, needs, and attitudes to enhance motivation and productivity. It promotes teamwork, employee participation, and positive relationships between managers and workers. This approach recognizes individuals’ needs and behaviors, taking an interpersonal perspective in managing people. It acknowledges both formal and informal elements within organizations.

According to the human relations approach, the ultimate satisfaction of the workers/employees in the working environment is the key to achieving organizational goals and increasing productivity.

In earlier studies on scientific management and administrative management, there was only a focus on workers as productive factors. But Elton Mayo emphasized there is the importance of people in the organization and that workers should not be treated as mere factors of production but should be considered as human beings.

He contended that the fertility of the employees can be promoted by social factors such as the moral and satisfactory relation between management and workers.

In an organization, the term “human relations” is usually used to describe the way of interacting managers with their workers. Workers’ attitudes, feelings, and needs are extremely important on the job, so first, the manager should determine his worker’s expectations to satisfy them.

Elton Mayo, the introducer of the “Human Relations Theory/Approach of Management”. Mayo was a professor at the Harvard Business School. With his colleagues, Mayo conducted a series of experiments from 1924 to 1932 at the Hawthrone Plant of Western Electric Company in Chicago. Thus, this approach is also known as the Hawthorne experiments.

History of Human Relations Theory of Management

The Human Relations Theory emerged between 1924 and 1932 through a series of experiments known as the Hawthorne Studies conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Plant in Chicago. Led by Elton Mayo and his team from Harvard Business School, the studies focused on understanding the socio-psychological aspects of human behavior in organizations.

Prior to Mayo’s work, classical theories of management fell short of addressing the dynamic nature of business practices. Mayo’s Hawthorne study aimed to refocus managerial strategies by examining worker motivation and satisfaction. It was the first experiment to consider both work life and employees’ personal lives, leading to a significant impact on management practices.

Related: Top 10 Theories of Management

The studies were initially conducted by scholars from MIT, but Mayo and Fritz J. Roethlisberger from Harvard Business School became involved and popularized the subject. Western Electric’s motivation for the experiments was to enhance company loyalty, reduce turnover, and maintain a positive public image.

The Hawthorne Studies shifted management theory from a purely scientific approach to a multidisciplinary one, incorporating behavioral, social, and medical sciences. This marked the birth of Organizational Behavior as a field of study, with scholars like George Lombard and Paul Lawrence contributing to its development.

The Hawthorne Studies highlighted the importance of considering employee well-being and the social aspects of work. This paved the way for a humanistic approach to managing people, valuing their emotions, needs, and attitudes to drive motivation and productivity within organizations.

What is Hawthorne Study?

The Hawthorne Study was a series of experiments conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Plant in Chicago by Elton Mayo and his colleague. Mayo’s human relations theory is based on this Hawthorne study.

It aimed to understand how workers’ attitudes and behaviors were influenced by various factors in the workplace. These studies revealed the significance of employee well-being and social dynamics, leading to a shift in management practices towards a more humanistic approach.

Also Read: The 14 Principles of Management

The four phases of the Hawthorne experiment include – the illumination experiment, relay assembly test room, mass interviewing program, and bank wiring observation room.

Illumination Experiment

This experiment was conducted to find out the effect on productivity by illuminating the light bulb in the workplace.

In 1924 this experiment was started and continued for three years. During the experiment, two groups of workers were observed. From one group of worker’s places, the light bulb was illuminated and in another group, the light bulb held constant, but in both conditions, productivity increased.

From this experiment, the researchers concluded that improving only the working conditions could not improve productivity but promoting social relations among workers as group members also improve the productivity of the organization. Thus human element is more important in the workplace.

Relay Assembly Test Room Experiment

In this experiment, two groups of six female, telephone relay assemblers were put in separate rooms. Frequently working conditions were changed in one room such as hours of work, hot launches, rest periods, wage incentives, nature of supervision, etc., and no change was made in another room.

Though the frequent changes being made, even though passes of time productivity continuously increased. Even when the improvement in physical working conditions is withdrawn, the productivity and the morale of the group remain unchanged.

After this, the researcher concluded that socio-psychological factors such as feelings of importance, recognition, appreciation, praise-giving, participation, and non-directive supervision are the key to higher worker productivity.

Mass Interviewing Program

This phase of the experiment is conducted to withdraw human relations, and what cause affects workers’ relations in their working life.

During this phase, a group of 20,000 workers was interviewed to knowing their perceptions of working life. The main focus of this interviewing program was on human relations rather than on physical working conditions.

After completing the interview, it was confirmed that informal relations and social and psychological needs influence the worker’s behavior and increase productivity.

Related: The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Bank Wiring Observation Room Experiment

Under this experiment, 14 male workers were formed into a small workgroup and intensively observed for seven months in the bank’s wiring room. The men were engaged in the assembly of terminal banks for the use of telephone exchange.

The purpose of this experiment is to make a more detailed analysis of the social relationships in a workgroup.

After completing this experiment, researchers concluded that employees would labor hard if they believe that the management is concerned about their welfare and supervisors paid special attention and care for them. The workers are guided more by group production norms than by official production norms.

What are the Findings of Hawthorne Studies?

The followings are the main findings Mayo concluded from his Hawthorne studies.

The Hawthorne Effect

Mayo observed that workers’ productivity increased not only due to changes in physical conditions but also because they were being observed and felt valued by the researchers. This highlighted the importance of social factors in influencing employee performance.

Influence of Informal Groups

Mayo found that informal groups within the workplace had a strong impact on workers’ behavior, attitudes, and productivity. These social dynamics played a crucial role in shaping individual and group performance.

Role of Communication

Mayo concluded that effective communication, both between management and employees and among workers themselves, was vital for fostering cooperation, resolving conflicts, and enhancing overall productivity.

Psychological and Emotional Factors

The studies revealed that workers’ psychological and emotional needs, such as recognition, appreciation, and a sense of belonging, significantly influenced their motivation and job satisfaction. Addressing these factors positively impacted employee performance.

Importance of Participative Management

Mayo emphasized the significance of involving employees in decision-making processes and considering their opinions and suggestions. Participative management was found to increase job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity among workers.

Contribution of Human Relations Theory

The major contributions of the theory of human relations can be presented as follows;

  • Employee motivation is not only driven by financial incentives but also by factors like recognition and work-life balance.
  • Informal leaders shape group norms and play a significant role in influencing behavior within the workplace.
  • Understanding and nurturing positive relationships among employees enhance teamwork and productivity.
  • Employees’ social needs and interactions impact their attitudes and performance.
  • Supportive and effective supervision boosts employee morale and productivity.
  • Including employees in decision-making processes increases job satisfaction and creates a more inclusive work environment.

Limitations of Human Relations Theory

The major drawbacks of Elton Mayo’s human relations theory include:

  • The human relations approach prioritizes interpersonal relationships and informal groups, often overlooking the importance of work itself.
  • This theory places less emphasis on the economic dimensions of work satisfaction, focusing primarily on interpersonal and employee relations.
  • Overemphasis on employees’ welfare may lead to greater involvement in outside activities, potentially diverting their attention from their organizational responsibilities.

6 thoughts on “Human Relations Theory: Definition, History, Experiment, and Pros/Cons”

  1. Thank you so much for the effort, actually the best one from all of evolution of management theory notes i have came across. Thanks again.


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