Human Relations Theory and People Management
The minutiae of the human soul … emerged as a new domain for management Nikolas Rose Conventional textbooks often set up a simple story about organization theory which has a very appealing structure. In this story, there is a good guy and a bad guy. Who gets to play which role sometimes shifts, but most often the bad guy is the scientific management approach and the good guy is human relations theory. This is a flawed story in my view, and the way I will tell the story emphasizes the many connections and similarities between the two. But I suppose the fact that I am referring to ‘the two’ implies that there must be some points of difference as well. Maybe so, but it is a different sort of difference to that which standard commentaries identify. Human relations theory (HRT) is normally thought of as having its roots in the Hawthorne Studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company, near Chicago in the United States. These studies have now taken on an almost mythological status within the study of organization, so that the details of what happened there and even when they happened is reported differently in different accounts. For example, different books give 1923, 1924 and 1927 as the date the studies started. Related to this mythology is a disjuncture between these precise details of what was done and what was written and the received version of what human relations theory is. Since human relations theory was the work of many years and many people, it contains a huge amount of variation and nuance (some of it extremely interesting)
1 This same disjuncture is present in relation to Taylor’s work (and scholarly commentaries on it) and that of many other organizational theorists. It isn’t a matter of saying that the received version is deficient in detail or scholarship. They are different things for different purposes. Apart from anything else, received versions are simpler and more memorable. In many ways my purpose in this book is to put out another version of organization theory, no more scholarly than the received version but hopefully no less memorable.
which is not captured by the received version.1 Although it would certainly be worthwhile to look at the detail (if you fancy it, Schwartzman, 1993, is a nice place to start), it is perhaps more important to examine the received version, for it is this which figures most strongly both in textbooks and, consequently, in the way that human relations theory is used to structure understandings of organizations, especially on the part of their managers. Indeed, as Nancy Harding (2003) observes of the conventional canon of management thinkers: … neither the writers themselves nor indeed what they wrote is important. What defines them as important … is what they signify, i.e. conventionality, continuity, the conservative way, or, in one word, patriarchy. (2003: 117) The basic suggestion of the received version of HRT is that through a series of experiments and interviews, the Hawthorne researchers and, most notably, the man who became their chief popularizer and canonical emblem, Elton Mayo, identified the importance of ‘the human factor’ in organizations. That meant that workers were now recognized as having social needs and interests such that they could no longer be regarded as the economically motivated automatons envisaged by Taylorism. Within these terms, two parts of the studies stand out as being especially important: the ‘illumination experiment’ and the ‘bank wiring room experiment’. In the first of these, lighting levels were varied up and down within an experimental group of workers, whilst light levels were left unchanged within a control group. Almost all of the lighting changes led to an increase in productivity and,...