Social and human problems: Elton Mayo

1. Situating Mayo

While Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) were to write up the Hawthorne research, they did not do so before Elton Mayo (1933) had leapt into print, causing some subsequent confusion about who actually conducted the studies. Mayo did not, but he used the research to mount a critique of scientific management’s tech- nologies of power. However, he was not so naive as to suggest a critique of power per se. He realized the necessity of technologies of power but sought more efficient and effective interventions.

The interpretations that Mayo (1933) made of the Hawthorne Studies were in large part already well rehearsed and accorded with views that he had formed in Brisbane in the aftermath of the First World War, in his work with ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers returning to sunny Queensland from the dark horrors of trench warfare in the European theater. It was Mayo’s early and incomplete training as a doctor, and his collaboration with a Brisbane specialist, which provided the occasion for the formation of his ideas about the importance of psychological subjectivity. From the treatment of maladjustment on the part of veterans, it was a small step to the treat- ment of industrial malaises: ‘Industrial unrest is not caused by mere dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions but by the fact that a conscious dissatisfaction serves to “light up” as it were the hidden fires of mental uncontrol’ (Mayo 1922: 64; cited in Bourke 1982: 226). Elton Mayo prescribed several short rest breaks per shift, to relieve physiological strain and to disrupt the negative feelings that led to industrial unrest. These ideas were subsequently to develop much further, as a result of his research involvements during the Second World War.

Mayo’s wartime studies of absenteeism and labor turnover led him to critique excessive individualism as a technology of power, and to propose an alternative approach. Unlike Follett, he did not come up with an explicit communitarian approach but he did develop a ‘doctrine of human cooperation’.5 Against excessive individuation Mayo (1975: 8) pits collaboration, his version of community. Individualism has served the nation well, he says, but only in one dimension, that of organizing for material efficiency. What it has not been able to do, even in wartime conditions, is ‘ensure spontaneity of co-operation’ or ‘teamwork’ (1975: 9), that is, social efficiency based in the skills of individuals to cooperate with others. The abil- ity to display a capacity for receiving ‘communication from others’ and responding to the ‘attitudes and ideas of others in such a fashion as to promote congenial par- ticipation in a common task’ (1975: 12) has been lost because scientific manage- ment has destroyed it, creating anomie and shattering community, through ‘the skill required of a machine-hand [having] drifted downwards; he has become more of a machine tender and less of a mechanic’ (1975: 13). All the organizing energy has been focused on developing technical skills in a more and more divided manner while ‘no equivalent effort to develop social or collaborative skill has yet appeared to compensate or balance the technical development’ (1975: 13).

2. From the body to the soul; from coercive to manipulative power

Mayo’s theoretical background guided the selection of issues he was familiar with and the marginalization of the issues that did not match the theory he chose to promote. Mayo’s ideas had already been formed in Brisbane; in the US the Hawthorne Studies provided him with the opportunity to promote them to the world and to do so before the researchers formally associated with the project did so. It may be said that Mayo achieved first-mover advantage. He used it to argue that small groups had their own sources of positive power, derived from group morale. When Mayo (1933) looked at the findings from the Hawthorne Laboratory inves- tigations he thought that the results showed that employees had a strong need for shared cooperation and communication. Merely by asking for their cooperation in the test, Mayo believed, the investigators had stimulated a new attitude among the employees. The assemblers considered themselves to be part of an important group whose help and advice were being sought by the company. He believed that if con- sultation between labor and management were instituted it would give workers a sense of belonging to a team. Here we can see the transformation produced in the modes of surveillance. A new strategy of government of the body/soul in the factory was to be based on the construction of a sentiment of freedom (and responsibility) without – apparently – any kind of surveillance:

The improvement in production, they believe, is not very directly related to the rest pauses and other innovations. It reflects rather a freer and more pleasant working envi- ronment, a supervisor who is not regarded as a ‘boss,’ a ‘higher morale.’ In this situation the production of the group insensibly lifts, even though the girls are not aware that they are working faster. Many times over, the history sheets and other records show that in the opinion of the group all supervision has been removed. On occasion indeed they artlessly tell the observer, who is in fact of supervisory rank, very revealing tales of their experiences with previous ‘bosses.’ Their opinion is, of course, mistaken: in a sense they are getting closer supervision than ever before, the change is in the quality of the super- vision. (Mayo 1975: 75)

These studies changed the landscape of management from Taylor’s engineering approach to the political economy of the body to a social sciences approach that focused on the interior life, the mental states, the consciousness and unconscious- ness – what Follett and Foucault termed the ‘soul’ – of the employees. Worker pro- ductivity would, henceforth, be interpreted predominantly in terms of patterns of culture, motivation, leadership, and human relations (Maslow 1978). The locus of power shifted from the engineering expert, designing the job, selecting and train- ing the right worker, and rewarding performance, to the manager, responsible for leading, motivating, communicating, and counseling the individual employee as well as designing the social milieu in which work takes place.

3. Human relations

Mayo developed what became known as the Human Relations School. The emphasis of this approach was on informal work group relations, the importance of these for sustaining the formal system, and the necessity of the formal system meshing with the informal system. In the informal system special attention was to be paid to the satisfaction of individual human needs, focusing on what motivates different people, in order to try and maximize their motivation and satisfaction. Mayo thought the manager had to be a social clinician, fostering the social skills of those with whom she or he worked. Workers who argued with their managers and super- visors were expressing deep-seated neuroses lodged in their childhood history.

Therapeutic interviews were recommended as a management tool, to create better-adjusted workers, and training in counseling and personnel interviews was touted as an essential management skill. The advice was simple. Pay full attention to the interviewee and make it clear that this is the case; listen carefully to what they have to say; do not interrupt; don’t contradict them; listen carefully for what is being said as well as any ellipses in terms of what is left unspoken; try and sum- marize carefully what has been said by the speaker as feedback for the interviewee; and treat what has been said in confidence (Trahair 2001).6

An ideal interview would be a form of confessional, working through positive power. The individual subjects who are interviewed will reveal themselves to them- selves through these interviews; ‘they will reflexively turn in upon themselves as an object of truth’, as Haugaard (1997: 90) suggests, but the presentation of truth will be one which mere employees ‘are not competent to interpret so the expert [the manager] is needed to weave a discourse of truth out of their deepest desires and most secret longings’.

The body having been re-engineered, it was now time to get to work on the soul, or at least that secular synonym for it, the unconscious. Trained dispositions are disciplined and responsible and will conduct the body through self-control. Mayo contributed to the new technologies of the self and counseling (Rose 1996; also see Baritz 1974). With Mayo, power moves from a focus on the body of the worker to the voice of the worker, to the signs of the unconscious that are interpretable through eliciting employee participation in therapeutic counseling. Now, it is evi- dent that this is not a meeting of equals. These sessions are to be neither friendly chats nor a meeting of equals but a meeting of clinical expertise lodged in superior power, claiming the mantle of authority, with human weakness, frailty and illness. Just as Taylor’s focus on disciplining the body was tempered in practice by Ford’s concern with the morality of his five-dollar-a-day workers, so the theoreticians of management shifted their focus from the body to the soul (consciousness and unconsciousness). The locus of the moral being was defined as one who not only is but also wants to be an obedient subject. The self became ‘an object of reflection and analysis, and, above all, transformable in the service of ideals’ (van Krieken 1990: 353). The ideals were only too clear, given that the meta-routine that had already been established was efficiency. What was under construction here was an attempt to establish patterns of spontaneous obedience as similar meta-routines that could be depended on utterly.

Mayo unequivocally unleashed a program for reforming the individual as an object of reflection, analysis, and transformation, and much of subsequent man- agement was to extend this technology of power by normalizing it as simply the constitution of management. Rose (1989: 2) noted that the ‘management of subjectivity’ became ‘a central task for the modern organization’ and those who profess expertise about organizations.

4. The group

What was crucial about the Hawthorne Studies was that they reconstituted subjec- tivity not as a unique quality of the individual’s psychology but as a phenomenon of the group and a resource for the organization.

The group represented a field for thought, argument, and administration that was gen- uinely supraindividual and yet not of the order of the crowds or the mass. The group would exist as an intermediary between the individual and the population, it would inhabit the soulless world of the organization and give it subjective meaning for the employee, it would satisfy the social needs of the atomic and fragmented self isolated with the rise of the division of labor and the decline of community, it would explain ills and could be mobilized for good, it could bring about damage in its totalitarian form and contentment and efficiency in its democratic form. In the medium of the group a new relay was found where administration in the light of psychological expertise could come into alignment with the values of democracy. (Rose 1996: 136)

The attitudes of employees; their feelings of control over their working lives; the sense of cohesion within the work group; and their belief in the good dispositions of bosses and supervisors towards them created ‘a range of new tasks’ that ‘emerged to be grasped by knowledge and managed in the factory’ (1996: 138). Things that were not known had to be made knowable, to be given shape and form. Non-directive interviews were used to find a ‘way into the emotional life of the factory, the emo- tional significance of particular events in the experience of the worker’ (1996: 139). These could then be slotted into the emergent discourse of functionalism that Parsons and others at Harvard were developing: manifest and latent functions could be distinguished so that one could analyze problems scientifically, in terms of underlying causes rather than apparent explanations.

Human relations approached these matters through more psychobiological con-structs, preparing the way for organizational behavior to emerge as a self-referential discourse, while functionalism goes on to define contingency theory as the tri- umph of organization studies. Organizationally, knowledge of existing patterns of relations could be incorporated into change programs to make them more effica- cious; interviews could fulfill therapeutic functions by making latent issues mani- fest. Managers could then manage in full knowledge of those sentiments and values belonging to their employees and act upon them appropriately. Specialized func- tions, such as personnel management, emerge to deal with these issues, through counseling, easing adjustments to change, planning and collecting data. Other new disciplines such as organizational communications also emerge as instruments for realigning misaligned values within organizations. Definitions of the situation could be arrived at that were shared in management’s terms rather than being opposed by workers’ terms. A culture of commitment could be built. And its builders should be leaders. Groups needed leaders. Leadership prowess was evalu- ated on the basis of an ability to get others to do what it was that the leaders wanted them to. And when they did this they could be seen to be leaders who cheapened the costs of surveillance greatly (Bavelas and Lewin 1942). Such leaders learnt how to use the democratic potential of groups to manage so that they could relax their vigilance in consequence. Group dynamics, leadership, sensitivity could all become the object of training and the subject of a new disciplinary apparatus that could be forged, just like a science, in the laboratory (Cartwright and Zander 1953). The raw materials for its forging were provided by Chester Barnard.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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