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3.2 Human Relations Theories

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn about the human relations approach
  2. Learn about key people in the human relations approach
  3. Learn about the implications of the human relations approach

During the 1930’s, it was noted that the world was in the middle of the worst economic depressions. During this period, workers started to dislike and question scientific methods and bureaucracy in organizational settings. In this section, we will introduce the human relationship approach. We will discuss the historical and cultural backgrounds of this approach.

The Great Depression, which occurred between 1929 -1940, caused many economic and social struggles for many Americans. Many governmental policies were changing, such as social security, welfare, and public improvement projects. The depression caused many families to move from drought, dry farming areas to the West Coast and from poor Southern cities to more enriched areas of the North. These families were looking for a better life. However, the increase of workers to these areas led to more competition. Moreover, it led to many types of worker abuse by corrupt and immoral managers. It was during this time, that many people had advocated for human rights, labor unions, better wages, and improved work conditions. “Fair wages” were defined NY worker output. In turn, this increased output usually lead to more injuries, illnesses, and deaths. Human rights were defined as having twelve hour work days, working six days a week, and a thirty minute break for lunch. These perspectives concerning “fair” and “human rights” were seen differently by managers and employees. The difference in perspectives caused tense and strained relationships between managers and workers.

Later World War II changed everything. There was an increase of employment in the private sector and the military. These changes resulted in a more human relations approach to communication in organizations, because there was an increase in well-educated workers. These new workers encouraged an awareness of worker’s needs, such as feeling important and appreciated as a worker and an individual. To better understand how new management ideas ultimately started to transform the face the workplace, we will first discuss a number of key ideas in the group of theories labeled under the term “human relations” followed by an analysis of two of the major theorists in this category: Elton Mayo and Kurt Lewin.

Key Ideas in Human Relations

Before we can jump right in and discuss the major theoretical thinkers that spawned the human relations movement, we first need to understand the basic characteristics of the theoretical developments in this time period. As with many theoretical movements, the notion of “human relations” is one that is drawn by researchers after the fact. Specifically, a business professor at the University of California at Berkley named Raymond E. Miles is responsible for much of the work on crystalizing the notion of “human relations.”Miles, R. E. (1965). Human relations or human resources? Harvard Business Review, 43(4), 148–157.

Miles, in a famous article in the Harvard Business ReviewMiles, R. E. (1965). Human relations or human resources? Harvard Business Review, 43(4), 148–157., discussed human relations as the natural knee-jerk reaction that many management theorists (along with workers and managers as well) had to Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management. Where Taylor viewed people as parts of a working machine, the human relations approach shifted the viewpoint from the task to the worker. For the first time, workers were viewed as an important part of the organization that should be viewed holistically instead of bundles of skills and aptitudes. As Miles noted, managers “were urged to create a ‘sense of satisfaction’ among their subordinates by showing interest in the employees’ personal success and welfare.”Miles, R. E. (1965). Human relations or human resources? Harvard Business Review, 43(4), 148–157.Most importantly, the goal of human relations was to make workers feel like they belonged to something bigger than themselves, and thus the worker’s work was important to the overall effort of the organization.

For communication scholars, the human relations approach is important because it is the first time that two-way communication was encouraged, or communication between a worker and her or his manager was like a dialogue instead of unidirectional communication from the manager targeted at the worker. Furthermore, the human relations perspective sees communication as a tool that can be used by management to “buy” cooperation from subordinates. Robert DubinDubin, R. (1958). The world of work. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. coined the term “privilege payA tool managers can utilize with subordinates when the manager provides subordinates departmental information and allows the subordinate to engage in open communication about various departmental issues with the manager.” to refer to a tool managers can utilize with subordinates when the manager provides subordinates departmental information and allows the subordinate to engage in open communication about various departmental issues with the manager. Dubin sees this as a form of payment a manager makes in order to “buy” cooperation from subordinates because the manager is having to give up some of her or his access to private information and control over subordinates because this process enables subordinates to engage in some self-direction.

In sum, the human relations perspective on organizational management notes that the world would be easier for managers if they could just make decisions and have subordinates follow those decisions. However, because employees are more productive when they are satisfied, it becomes the job of the manager to open engage with subordinates. As Miles notes, “this model suggests, the manager might do better to ‘waste time’ in discussing the problem with subordinates, and perhaps even to accept suggestions that he believes may be less efficient, in order to get the decision carried out.” Miles, R. E. (1965). Human relations or human resources? Harvard Business Review, 43(4), 148–157, pg. 150.

Key People in Human Relations

Now that we’ve explore some of the theoretical underpinnings of the human relations approach to management, we’re going to explore two of the most important thinkers who are seen as falling into this category: Elton Mayo and Kurt Lewin.

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo was a Harvard Professor who had a huge interest in Federick Taylor’s work. He was interested in learning about ways to increase productivity. In 1924, Elton Mayo and his protégé Fritz Roethlisberger were awarded a grant by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Science to study productivity and lighting at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company. The Hawthorne experiments, as Elton Mayo’s body of work became known as, are a series of experiments in human relations conducted between 1924 and 1932 at Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois.

Illumination Study

The first study at Hawthorne Works was designed to explicitly test various lighting levels and how the lighting levels affected worker productivity. The original hypothesis of the illumination study was the as lighting increased worker productivity would increase. The opposite was also predicted, as lighting decreased, worker productivity would decrease. The original push behind the study was the electric power industry who believed that if they could demonstrate the importance of artificial lighting, organizations around the country would adopt artificial lighting in place of natural lighting to ensure worker productivity.

The research began in the fall of 1924 and continued through the spring of 1927 as three different groups of workers were put through the experiment: relay assembly workers, coil winding workers, and inspectors.Roethlisberger, F. J., & Dickson, W. J. (1939). Management and the worker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. After three different testing conditions were concluded, the researchers were perplexed by their findings. It did not matter if the researchers increased or decreased light in the company; the workers’ productivity increased. This finding was even true when the researchers turned down the lights to wear the workers could barely see. The researchers later realized that lighting did not affect worker productivity, rather the researchers’ presence had an impact. That's why, production outcomes were similar to the lighting study because workers were influenced by the attention they got by the researchers.Roethlisberger, F. J., & Dickson, W. J. (1939). Management and the worker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. This incident was labeled the Hawthorne EffectWorkers behaviors were affected by the attention they receive rather than by other variables like lighting or temperature. Once workers felt like they were being noticed or recognized, it influenced their productivity. Group norms were also affected..

Relay Assembly Study

In order to further clarify the impact of a variety of factors on productivity, a second set of tests were designed to evaluate rest periods and work hours on productivity. The goal of this study was really to determine how fatigue impacted worker productivity. Six women operators volunteered to participate in the relay assembly study. The women were given physical examinations at the beginning of the study and then every six weeks in order to ensure that the experiment was not adversely affecting their health.

The six women were isolated in a separate room away from other Hawthorne workers where it was easier to measure experimental conditions like output and quality of work, temperature, humidity, etc… The specific task in the relay assembly test was an electromagnetic switch that consisted of 35 parts that had to be put together by hand.

The experimenters introduced a variety of changes to the workers’ environment: pay rates, bonuses, lighting, shortened workdays/weeks, rest periods, etc… Surprisingly, as the test period quickly spanned from an original testing period of a couple of months to more than two years, no matter what the experimenters did, productivity increased. In fact, productivity increased over 30 percent during the first two and a half years of the study and then plateaued during the duration of the tests. The physicals the workers received every six weeks also showed that the women had improved physical health and their absenteeism decreased during the study period. Even more important, the women regularly expressed increased job satisfaction.

Once again the researchers were stumped. The researchers quickly tried to determine what was causing the increased productivity. The researchers quickly ruled out all of the manipulated conditions and settled on something considerably more intangible, employee attitudes.

Employee Interview Study

During the middle of the relay assembly studies, a group of Harvard researchers led by Elton Mayo and F. J. Roethlisberger joined the team of engineers at Hawthorne Works to add further expertise and explanation to the studies underhand. One of the most important contributions Mayo makes is during the follow-up to the illumination and relay studies when they interviewed workers at Hawthorne Works.

From 1928 to 1931 the Harvard researchers interviewed over 21,000 workers in attempt to gage worker morale and determine what job factors impacted both morale and job satisfaction. The researchers predicted, based on the illumination and relay studies, that if they could increase worker morale and satisfaction then the workers would be more efficient and productive as well. The interview study definitely posed some new challenges for the researchers. Mayo not that the “experience itself was unusual; there are few people in this world who have had the experience of finding someone intelligent, attentive, and eager to listen without interruption to all that he or she has to say.”Mayo, E. (1945). The social problems of an industrial civilization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School, pg. 163. To this end, Mayo trained a series of interviewers to listen and not give advice as they took descriptive notes of what was being told to them by the workers.

After the interviewing study was completed, the researchers attempted to make sense of the mounds of data they had accumulated. One interesting side effect was noted. After being interviewed by a researcher about the employee’s working conditions, the employee reported increased satisfaction. Ultimately, the vary act of being asked about their working conditions made the employees more satisfied workers and more ultimately more productive. One of the interesting outcomes of this study is the practice of employee reaction surveys, which are still widely used in organizations today.

Bank Wiring Observation Study

One of the findings of the interview study was that workers had a tendency of creating an informal standard for output that was predetermined by the group but never clearly stated. These productivity standards were never really in-line with the ones communicated by either efficiency engineers or managers. To examine the influence that informal group rules had on worker productivity, Mayo and his team created the bank wiring observation study.

Fourteen bank wiremen (nine wirers, three solderers, and two inspectors) were placed in a separate room and told to complete their individual tasks. The men in the room were putting together automatic telephone exchange components that consisted of 3,000 to 6,000 individuals terminals that had to be wired. The workers spent a lot of time on their feet. To ensure that the men were not affected by the Hawthorne effect, the researchers never let the men know they were being studied. However, a researcher named W. Lloyd Warner, a trained anthropologist with an interest in group behavior, was present in the room, but he acted like a disinterested spectator and had little direct interaction with the wiremen. In the experimental condition, pay incentives and productivity measures were removed to see how the workers would react. Over time, the workers started to artificially restrict their output and an average output level was established for the group that was below company targets. Interestingly enough, the man who was considered the most admired of the group also demonstrated the most resentment towards management and slowed his productivity the most, which led to the cascading productivity of all of the other men in the group.

The researchers ultimately concluded that the wiremen created their own productivity norms without ever verbally communicating them to each other. For the first time, the researchers clearly had evidence that within any organization there exists an informal organization that often constrains individual employee behavior. The bank wiring observation study was stopped in spring of 1932 as layoffs occurred at Hawthorne Works because of the worsening Great Depression.


The Hawthorne Studies and the research of Mayo and Roethlisberger reinvented how organizations think about and manager workers. Unlike Taylor’s perspective, Mayo and Roethlisberger felt that interpersonal relationships were important. Moreover, they felt that society was composed on groups and not just individuals, individuals do not act independently with their own interests but are influenced by others, and most workers decisions are more emotional than rational. One cannot overstress the importance that Mayo and Roethlisberger have had on management theory and organizational academics. Overall, these studies demonstrated the importance that communication is in subordinate-supervisor interactions, the importance of peer-relationships, and the importance of informal organizations.

While the Hawthorne Studies revolutionized management theory, they were also quite problematic. For example, most of the major studies in this series consisted of very small samples of workers (6 in the relay study; 13 in the bank wiring study), so these results are definitely suspect from a scientific vantage point. Furthermore, some people would argue that Hawthorn effects were really the result of workers who were more afraid of unemployment rather than communication relationships.Rice, B. (1982). The Hawthorne Defect: Persistence of a flawed theory. Psychology Today, 16(2), 70–74. Regardless of potential errors of the studies, the conclusion that Mayo, Roethlisberger, and Dickson found was quite extraordinary. Relationships have a significant impact on the quality of organizational performance.

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin was another person who explored the human relations side to organizational communication. Lewin was a refugee from Nazi Germany. He adored democracy and had a passion for applying psychology to improving the world.Tannenbaum, A. S. (1966). Social psychology of the work organization. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, p. 86. During World War II, Lewin was at the University of Iowa. The U.S. government asked him to research ways to advise against housewives from purchasing meat, because there was such a short supply.Lewin, K. (1958). Group decision and social change. In E. F. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, and E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology (pp. 197–211). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. Lewin felt that there was a huge barrier because housewives were expected to buy meat because of their families, friends, and parents, who anticipated to be served meat. Lewin hypothesized that if housewives were able to talk with other housewives about their meat buying tendencies, that they would be able to overcome this barrier. Lewin and his cohorts performed the experiments and found support for his hypothesis. Housewives who were able to talk about their meat purchasing with other housewises were ten times more likely to change their behavior.

Lewin felt like he could analyze these same principles in an organization. Lester Coch and John R.P. FrenchCoch, L., & French, J. R. P., Jr. (1948). Overcoming resistance to change. Human Relations, 1, 512–532. found that workers in a pajama factory were more likely to espouse new work methods if they were given the opportunity to discuss them and exercise some influence on the decisions that affected their jobs. These new findings helped organizations realize the benefits of group formation, development, and attitudes. Lewin’s ideas helped influence future organizational communication theorists by emphasizing the importance of communication. Lewin helped identify the fact that workers want to have a voice and provide input in their tasks.

Key Takeaways

  • Elton Mayo and his research associates studied how lighting effects production. They later realized that the workers were not affected by lighting rather the researchers presence.
  • Kurt Lewin felt that group dynamics impacted behavioral outcomes. If workers can talk about their tasks with others it impacts the organization.
  • Workers usually had a tendency of creating an informal standard for output that was never stated but also predetermined by the group.


  1. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the human relations approach.
  2. Discuss how group dynamics impacts behavior outcomes. Is this true from your experience? How so?
  3. Do you believe that group dynamics are important in an organization? Why or why not? Can you provide some specific examples?