What is Human Relations Theory? Definition, History, Experiments, Findings, & Pros/Cons

Suppose you are working in an organization with a rigid structure and you are only viewed as a working machine. Your sentiments, feelings, attitudes, and perceptions are totally ignored. Would you work in such an organization? I think not. To reduce such practices the human relations theory is considered a pioneer and has a great role.

What is Human Relations Theory?

Human relations theory is the humanistic way of managing people in an organization. It holds the belief that valuing employees’ feelings, emotions, needs, and attitudes, prompting teamwork, employee participation, non-directive supervision, good relationships between managers and workers, etc. are the key ways to employee motivation and productivity, of the whole organization.

This theory emphasizes that managers should be more sensitive to employees’ needs and attitudes. Employees i.e. workers should be treated as human beings not only as factors of production.

Elton Mayo (1880-1949), an Australian Psychologist, developed this human relations theory. According to him, workers’ work satisfaction is necessary for productivity, and money is not the only factor for workers’ Motivation depends on various factors, and the workplace should have a healthy working environment.

Elton Mayo is in opposition to the classical management theories of F.W. Taylor, Henri Fayol, and Max Weber. All these three classical theories have a common thing of rigid structure ignoring workers’ sentiments and only being focused on productivity. Mayo stated that these theories were suitable for the industrial age but were not so suitable in this modern practice.

History of Human Relations Theory

Human relations theory is the movement from 1924 to 1932. Elton Mayo, a professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues did a long study and developed the human relations theory/approach to management.

He and his team did a series of experiments. The experiments were eight years long. They did their experiments among several groups of workers at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Chicago. That is why human relation theory is also called the Hawthorne experiment.

Mayo looked into classical theories and found that they were not so applicable to dynamic business practices. He started this Hawthorne study to refocus on managerial strategy incorporating the socio-psychological aspects of human behavior in organizations.

Related: Scientific Management Theory

He made the theory which is more focused on the various motivating aspects of workers in the workplace. In fact, his experiment was the first to focus on work life and the outside life of employees. And, made a significant impact on the management practice of how employee satisfaction is a critical factor to organizational success.

The experiments Mayo conducted included illumination experiments, relay assembly test room experiments, mass interviewing experiments, and bank wiring observation room experiments. Let’s look at these experiments separately.

Illumination Experiment (1924)

The illumination experiment is the first Mayo conducted in 1924 which lasted for 3 years. In this experiment, he wanted to find out whether or not the light bulb affects workers’ productivity.

He formed two groups of workers and kept them in separate rooms. In one room the light bulbs held constant and in another room, the number of light bulbs was reduced (or removed). He thought that the removal of light bulbs would reduce productivity and its availability would increase productivity.

But in both cases, he found the same productivity. And, he concluded that group works and social relationships among workers were the real cause of productivity.

Relay Assembly Test (1927)

In the second experiment, he volunteered six women operators for the study, and they are employed in assembling relays or electromagnetic switches used in switching telephone calls automatically. The study was to find out whether or not changes in work conditions affect employees’ mental health and productivity.

To ensure precision in measuring output and quality, the women were segregated into separate areas. The productivity remained the same despite changes in rest breaks, pay incentives, the kind of supervision, etc. for workers in a separate room.

Researchers found that the rest break, relief from boring working conditions, the wage incentive, and the sort of supervision offered in the test environment all contributed to an improvement in performance and efficiency. And it was determined that although elements like illumination, work hours, rest breaks, bonus incentives, and supervision had an impact on employees, the attitudes of those who experienced the things were more important.

Related: What is Workforce Diversity?

Mass Interviewing Program

In the third experiment, 20,000 workers were interviewed through questions to know their attitudes toward the workplace, supervision practices, insurance plans, promotions, and wages. The focus of this experiment was on knowing employees’ human relations in the organization rather than their physical.

After the interviewing process, it was concluded that workers’ behavior was more influenced by informal relations, group behavior, and psychological needs which had a significant impact on productivity.

Bank Wiring Observation (1931-1932)

In the last experiment of Elton Mayo’s human relations theory, 14 male workers were formed into a small group. They were engaged in the assembly of terminal banks for equipment used for the telephone exchange. Their wage for hourly work is fixed based on average outputs and bonuses also on growth.

It was expected that highly efficient workers would put pressure on less efficient workers to increase output and take advantage of the group incentive plan. However the result was different and workers were influenced by other various factors like fear of unemployment, fear of not increasing in output, desire to protect slow workers, etc.

Read Also: What is Administrative Management?

Conclusions of Hawthorne Studies

After the experiment, Elton Mayo had drawn the following conclusions from his Hawthorne studies.

  • He concludes that an organization is a social unit. Workers are social beings. An organization should have a social way to manage its workers as society people maintain their society.
  • Organizations have group influence in their operations. Workers develop different groups in the organization, they develop psychological bonds between them and have a strong influence on each other.
  • Organizations now are formed in groups. Managers should understand group practice as group efforts bring literally greater results than individual efforts.
  • Mayo’s human relations theory gives stronger favor to the motivation of employees not only by means of finance but also through social considerations, praise, recognition, and other factors.
  • Managers’ supervision over their subordinates has a great impact on employees’ performance. A manager who supervises his employees by being friendly will get higher employee motivation and productivity than a manager who does not.
  • He emphasized ensuring proper communication in the organization that must make understand workers the logic behind the information and do the work efficiently.
  • Organizations run effectively and efficiently with a balanced approach. Every component of an organization should be discussed and evaluated before making an important decision.

Contributions of Human Relations Theory

Since human relations theory of management has given more importance to employees at the workplace we can certainly see such practice in modern organizations where employees are motivated by different means. Some of the human relations approach contributions can be mentioned below:

  • Human relations theory has stated money is not the only thing for employees’ motivation. This is true now as vacation, fulfilling social needs, recognition, family benefits, and different factors play a major role in employee motivation.
  • Informal relations between managers and employees and between employees have further importance in setting and enforcing group efforts.
  • Effective and friendly supervision of employees has a significant role in employee morale and productivity.
  • Considering the view of lower-level employees in decision-making has become essential today.
  • An organization is a social unit that has become unavoidable.

Limitations of Human Relations Theory

Although the human relations approach has big contributions to the management of businesses it also has some drawbacks. They are:

  • It only focuses on interpersonal and employee relations at the workplace and gives less focus on work.
  • The overemphasis on employees’ welfare may make them get more involved in outside activities instead of organizational duties.

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