Human Relations Theory

The human relations theorists approached the study of or- ganizations by calling attention to “the seamy side of progress,” to use Mayo’s apt phrase. The early writers in the 1930s were concerned with the many signs that modern industrial organizations were generating some undesirable human consequences as well as a vast flow of goods and services. They saw these signs in labor-management conflict, in worker apathy and boredom, in endless struggles for power among managers— all pointing to a large-scale waste of human resources. From this beginning the research of the human relations school has grown over the years to encompass an interest in individual and small- group behavior, intergroup behavior, and total organization phenomena. In reviewing it we will for several reasons draw our examples primarily from Roethlisberger’s and Dickson’s original studies at the Haw-thorne Works of Western Electric.18 In the range of topics considered these studies foretold all the major lines of subsequent inquiry. They also attracted widespread interest among managers, which did more than any other single study to make the human relations approach a key part of most managers’ everyday theory of organization. This means not only that the studies will be familiar to many readers but also that they will help us to understand how this line of research started a movement to change management practices. Some of the many other important contributions to the theory that have come since will be mentioned in passing.

The study of the bank wiring room at Hawthorne pointed up the discrepancy between how the organizational system was supposed to work and how workers actually behaved. It dramatically demonstrated how informal work groups provide mutual support and effective resistance to management schemes for increasing output. In spite of management’s proper application of classical organization theory, workers were not acting “responsibly.” They were not motivated to perform their assigned tasks to the best of their ability. They were more interested in the rewards and punishments of their work group than in those of management. At this stage the problems posed by the inadequacies of classical theory were stated—but no answers or remedies were apparent.

This highlighting of the great gap between the world of management and the world of workers was related to an early interest in the problems of communications up and down the organization hierarchy. The relay assembly test room was the stage for an early experiment in communication between workers and management. The favorable output results of this experiment attracted considerable attention. It probably encouraged some writers to give blanket endorsement to the idea of participative management as a way of increasing the workers’ involvement in and motivation toward achieving the goals of the enterprise.

Another lead came from the development at Western Electric of individual counseling, with its attention to interpersonal processes. This program highlighted the potential for learning and problem-solving in two-person relationships when one person listens skillfully as the other explores and thinks through his concerns and feelings. The parallel development by Carl Rogers and his associates of the nondirective therapy methods greatly enhanced the interest.

After the publication of the Western Electric studies, the pace of human relations research accelerated. Another early experiment that may have given even greater impetus to generalizations about participative management was conducted by Lewin’s associates, White and Lippitt.9 This work has since been complemented by attention to the opportunities for listening and learning in group settings. More recently, considerable attention has been given to the problems of communications between groups in organizations. All of this led to identification of a need for upgrading the interpersonal competence of managers in order that they might cope more effectively with these myriad communication problems.18 Emphasis was placed on developing trust and openness in all organizational relationships.

These historical developments in the human relations approach have been summarized only briefly, because many recent books on management have dealt with them, and they are generally well known. This is in contrast to the classical theory, which, while widely practiced, has received less explicit treatment in the current literature. Altogether, these human relations ideas have not only added a good deal to our knowledge about human behavior in organizations, but have also created a pressure on management to change the more customary ways of running organizations. It is this normative and prescriptive aspect of this work that we especially want to compare with the classical approach and to review in the light of the present study. The researchers and writers identified with human relations in industry have by no means all agreed on these matters, and many have avoided prescribing courses of action to managers. In spite of this, the human relations approach has acquired a certain popular image, the net effect of which has been to push managers toward:

  • Securing the participation of lower echelons in solving the organization’s problems, and
  • Fostering more openness and trust among individuals and groups in organizations.

It is in this form that the human relations approach has, as we have said, become a part of the manager’s everyday theory of organization.* In this form it has appeared alongside classical theory as another universal prescription for all managers and all organizations, in spite of the nonuniversalist stance of its principal founders.

Given the personal histories of the principals, and their time, it is not difficult to understand how they came to initiate the human relations approach and how it snowballed into a movement. The chief contributors, such as Mayo, Lewin, Roethlisberger, and McGregor, were all academics whose personal experience was largely with universities. Considering this exposure to a relatively unstructured type of organization, it is not surprising that they viewed the production segment of industrial organizations, where they began their systematic research, as very highly structured and restrictive. This is not to say that their findings were in any way invalid —only that their backgrounds would lead them to ask questions about the negative side effects of any highly structured system.

The trends of the times help to explain why these men’s findings were grasped with such fervor and developed into a movement. The last three decades have, by common observation, been periods of increasing change and uncertainty, mostly stemming from the advances of science and related technology. Our own findings suggest that in such times the typical organization will need to reduce its degree of structure and lengthen its time horizon in order to remain viable. This has been especially true in the science-based industries, such as chemicals, electronics, and petroleum. It is no wonder that management has been turning to the human relations experts for guidance in reshaping their organizations to cope more effectively with change. In fact, the problems of change in organizations have been a persistent theme of human relations investigation. In studying the bank wiring room at Western Electric, the researchers found a combination of classical management practices plus a moderately high rate of technical change that disrupted relationships and kept alienating the work force from the purposes of the total organization. A good deal of the subsequent field research has been conducted in industries with high rates of change and particularly in engineering and research units, where change is especially rapid. It is in such settings that the findings of this study would indicate that a shift toward a wider distribution of influence would have a payoff in performance. Thus it is not surprising that the human relations researchers have found both support for their propositions and the most avid application of the implications of their findings in such organizations.

In the light of these historical facts it is easy to see why some writers and many managers have picked up the human relations work as a universally applicable theory of organization. For example, in their eagerness to find a single answer to all industrial ills, some have interpreted the relay assembly test room experiment as offering evidence for using democratic procedures at all levels and in all parts of organizations. These people have overlooked the fact that in this original experiment participation did not go very far. Workers were consulted on such matters as the length and timing of rest periods and the seating arrangements. They were not brought into discussions of work scheduling, work methods, quality, payment, hours, or any other broader considerations. In fact, the workers were performing a short-cycle, highly repetitive task, which gave them a strictly limited base of knowledge in regard to organizational matters. And they actually achieved influence only in those limited areas where they had relevant knowledge.

Reinterpreted in the terms of this study, the relay assembly test room was an experiment at the worker level in giving people positional influence to match their knowledge-based influence, limited though it was. It worked out well. It enhanced the workers’ identification with the goals of the department, gave them a sense of responsibility, motivated them —choose your own favorite terms—, and output went up and up. To call this experiment a universal argument for democratic (or nondemocratic) management, however, is simply confusing matters.

The same can be said of the White and Lippitt experiments, also widely cited as evidence for the universal utility of democratic leadership. Their careful study clearly demonstrated that democratic leadership provided a number of advantages over more autocratic or laissez-faire styles. However, as the authors point out, these were hobby groups designed to achieve the ends that the boys themselves wanted to achieve. They were recreational clubs. The boys were the source of all relevant information on what was desired. To design a structure and a leadership pattern that taps into this knowledge rather than repressing or ignoring it makes good sense, as the findings show. Broad generalization from this experiment is, however, to be done with great caution, since, as the authors stated, “The situation was also not comparable with the many situations in which society demands that a certain end be accomplished.”

It is possible now to restate the major tenets of the human relations movement (as distinct from its research) in the light of the present study. In our terms, the movement advocates the general use of a low-structure organization, along with widely shared influence and open, confronting modes of conflict resolution. It has placed almost all its emphasis on realizing a high state of integration and has definitely played down the utility and importance of concurrently achieving appropriate differentiation. Once we have stated the ideas of this movement in these terms, it is obvious that the findings of our study suggest conditions under which these propositions will and will not hold. We have seen strong indications that organizations with less formal structure and widely shared influence are best able to cope with uncertain and heterogeneous environmental conditions. All the organizations in our sample seemed to function best when influence was located (either vertically in the hierarchy or laterally between functions) where the relevant knowledge was concentrated. In some instances this meant that the lower echelons had considerable influence on organizational issues, and in some instances it did not. In all the organizations studied the confronting modes of conflict resolution seemed to contribute to effective integration. However, we did not study any circumstances when conflict was predominantly of a zero-sum or win-lose type. We will say more of this in the next chapter. So we see that the tenets of the human relations movement are, in terms of our findings, relevant to many but not all of the situations studied. In today’s world of rapid change the prescription is undoubtedly right many more times than otherwise. But as a movement, it is still a universalistic remedy for organizations that seem to need differential treatment.

Our review of two major schools of organization theory has placed both in the perspective of the findings of this study. We have seen that each theory seems to apply in certain en- vironmental conditions. In simplified terms, the classical theory tends to hold in more stable environments, while the human relations theory is more appropriate to dynamic situations. This realization helps to explain the historical paradox posed earlier in this chapter—the parallel persistence of these two theories over a period of at least three decades. Both were needed to explain behavior in organizations operating in distinctly different environments; one theory could not displace the other.

The debate is still going on. Today it is in terms of Theory X versus Theory Y, or mechanistic versus organic. Sociologists concerned with organizations discuss a similar dichotomy in terms of “rational” versus “natural” modes of organization. The former is traced to Weber, who emphasized the virtues of a bureaucratic structure for achieving organizational purpose and meeting other latent human needs.23 Subsequent sociologists have pointed out the shortcomings of Weber’s model and have emphasized the unplanned evolution of organizational forms and the multiplicity of organizational goals. This debate also continues.

These theoretical discussions are, of course, necessary and healthy among students of organizational life. Their spillover onto managers, however, has caused confusion that comes at a high price. Far too many administrators raised in one organizational setting and infused with the theory appropriate to it have wrought havoc by trying to apply it later in quite different settings. A small army of managers, trained and con- ditioned by classical theory, has tried at great cost to apply it in inappropriate settings. The opposite has undoubtedly happened too, but perhaps to a lesser extent.

Early in this chapter we saw a long list of management techniques currently in vogue, which we sorted into two rough sets. One set would tend to develop a more highly structured organization; the other, a lower one. One set would tend to increase the sharing of influence; the other, to concentrate it. Are managers choosing wisely the right time and place for the application of these techniques? Or are they being applied across the board, without discrimination? To repeat—the cost of confusion in these matters remains very high.

Our findings have led us to believe that both of the traditional theories might now be subsumed under a broader theory that is gradually taking form in the recent literature— what we are calling a contingency theory of organizations. We would hesitate to make such an assertion if we did not see a number of recent studies conducted by others that tend generally to support our conclusions. In the next chapter we will examine a selection of these and pull them together with our findings into a further statement of a contingency theory of organizations.

Source: Lawrence Paul R., Lorsch Jay W. (1967), Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration, Harvard Business School.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *