human relations school

human relations school

an approach which seeks to understand and prescribe for workplace behaviour on the basis of the importance of work-group norms, communication and supervisory skills. This approach originates with the famous Hawthorne Studies (see HAWTHORNE EFFECT) which were undertaken at the Western Electric Company in the US during the depression of the 1920s and ‘30s (Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939). In this research, the results were interpreted by the investigators as indicating the salience of group norms and styles of leadership for worker behaviour. Workers were seen as social beings operating in the social system of the workplace (Eldridge, 1971), and as having needs for social anchorage and belonging, which were not recognized by the rational, individualistic and materialistic assumptions of SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT.

Elton MAYO is sometimes regarded as the founding father who provided the theoretical underpinnings of this approach. Drawing on the Paretian notion of nonlogical action and sentiment (see PARETO), and the Durkheimian notion of ANOMIE, he thought that provision for social anchorage in the workplace could compensate for wider societal disorganization. Human relations techniques in industry could transform managers into brokers of social harmony. Some writers, however, mainly see Mayo as a popularizing publicity officer (M. Rose, 1988).

Subsequent developments within what has become a diverse approach involve, firstly, some inconclusive attempts to demonstrate the practical merit of human relations supervisory styles and participative approaches to organizational change (Coch and French, 1949). Secondly, others have drawn attention to the need to consider the tasks workers undertake and their implications for interaction. Attention has, for example, been given to the way in which technology influences tasks, work flow, interactions, group formation and supervisor-worker relationships. This shift to a more inclusive approach begins to question whether attitudes and supervisory styles can be altered independently of restructuring interactions, and therefore of certain features of formal organizations. These shifts in the level of analysis have begun to bridge the gap between the early anti-Taylorian, social-psychological emphasis on informal groups and the need to consider formal organizational arrangements. Similar arguments are to be found among later neo-human relations theorists who developed the model of ‘self-actualizing man’ (MASLOW, 1954; Herzberg, 1968), and sociotechnical-systems theorists (see SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEMS APPROACH).

Several related criticisms of this approach have been made, not least of which is the inadequate conceptualization of CONFLICT which tends to be located at the level of interpersonal relations, rather than in terms of structural inequalities in the distribution of POWER and resources, either within organizations themselves or the wider society. Relatedly, there has been a tendency to end analysis at the factory gates and offer in-plant solutions to problems on the basis of questionable social-psychological assumptions about the social needs of employees (Goldthorpe, 1968). Finally, the orientation of human relations research tends to reflect the values and interests of managers more than workers – a fact which, in the Hawthorne experiments, led to the selective interpretation of results from poorly designed experiments (Carey, 1967). However, it is important to note that these criticisms are not equally applicable to all the writers who are usually located within the human relations field, since they are not, in fact, easily classified as a 'S chool’ or ‘movement’. (M. Rose, 1988).

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