While the published writings of Elton Mayo (1880-1949) now seemto be mainly of historical interest, he personally had an enormous influence in the development of industrial sociology and psychology and in the stimulation of men who have made major contributions to research and theory.
Mayo was particularly influenced by the writings of the psychologist Pierre Janet. He combined an interest in psychoneuroses and what he termed “obsessive thinking,” derived from his study of Janet, with the approach to culture and social structure of the social anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. In research methods he adapted the interviewing methods of clinical psychologists tothe field methods of the anthropologists and brought them to bear on studies of industrial organizations.
Mayo was born in Adelaide, Australia, the second of seven children. He came from a family of professional men. In the process of finding his vocation, Mayo ranged widely in space and experience: from medical student to newspaperman to laborer to businessman, from Scotland to west Africa and back to Australia. From the printing business, he turned to the study of psychology at Adelaide University. A psychiatric treatment program he and a collaborator organized toward the end of World War I to deal with soldiers suffering from shell shock led to his appointment in 1919 to the newly established chair of philosophy at the University of Queensland.
Rockefeller and Carnegie foundation grants brought him to the United States and supported his first research in human relations in industry, which he began while at the University of Pennsylvania. The site of his first research in this field was a textile mill.
The most productive period of his life began in 1926, when he accepted a position at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business Administration. In association with Lawrence J. Henderson, an eminent biological chemist and devotee of Pareto, Mayo organized a research team to study the psychological and social problems of industrial workers. The aim from the beginning was to follow these problems wherever they led, without regard to customary disciplinary boundaries.
In 1927 Mayo launched the now famous Western Electric research program. He worked particularly with Fritz J. Roethlisberger, William J. Dickson, and T. North Whitehead, and it was they who produced the principal research reports of the studies carried on at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago. As director of the program, Mayo had the task of handling the diplomacy involved in making such an unprecedented research effort acceptable within a company, and he also made important contributions to the design of the research program and to the interpretation of the results (see Management and the Worker by Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939).
While Mayo was primarily interested in problems of individual adjustment, he recognized the necessity of examining such individual problems in the context of organizations and social structure. He was instrumental in bringing W. Lloyd Warner to Harvard and worked closely with him in launching the Yankee City study. At the same time, Warner became consultant to the Western Electric research program and there stimulated the analysis of problems of group and organizational structure.
In all his writings Mayo was concerned with two basic ideas, one dealing with the nature of society, the other dealing with the problems of individuals. He argued that the industrial revolution had destroyed traditional society in which people responded to each other in terms of established routines. The breakdown in these traditional understandings had led to widespread conflict in industry and society. The traditions of old could not be re-established, and, therefore, the only solution must be to build an adaptive society in which an administrative elite, trained in social understandings and skills, would resolve human as well as technical problems.
He saw workers suffering from a form of anomie, the failure to find a satisfactory place for themselves in the world of work, with a consequent involvement in obsessive reveries in which they brooded unproductively over their problems. For dealing with these problems of obsessive thinking, he had great faith in the therapeutic relationship in which the individual is encouraged to talk out his problems freely to an interested listener.
Although Mayo directed the Western Electric research program, the principal research fruits of that program bear little relation to Mayo’s ideas about social integration, obsessive thinking, and psychotherapy. To be sure, Management and the Worker does devote chapters to the personnel-counseling program, a direct outgrowth of Mayo’s ideas, but that program was later abandoned by the company and never served as a model for other companies. Furthermore, few research men today consider a personnel-counseling program of much importance in dealing with problems of human adjustment in industry. The principal fruits of the Western Electric studies are found in those parts of Management and the Worker which deal with informal relations among workers, with worker-management relations, and with the methods for gathering systematic observational and interviewing data upon behavior in organizations. These contributions provided the foundation for the very rapid development of research on organizational behavior in the two decades following publication of that book in 1939.
Mayo, as the father of research on the human problems of industry, also became the principal target for attack. Critics argued that there was no place in his philosophy for conflict, that he sought to achieve organizational harmony through the subordination of individual and group interests by the administrative elite, and that he did not under-stand the role of unions in a free society. Mayo’s supporters replied that he had no illusions about the possibility of establishing perfect harmony in any industrial society. He simply observed that there is so much destructive conflict that it is well to seek better ways of handling human problems. While Mayo has been charged with being anti-union, it might be more accurate to say that he was simply indifferent to unions. In his most productive period of work with Western Electric, the company had only a weak company union. Although unions had become a prominent part of the industrial scene long before Mayo’s death, he did not think they fundamentally altered those human problems of industry that interested him, and he never integrated unions into his thinking about industry.
Mayo was not a systematic theoretician. He had a wide-ranging mind and creative social abilities. Few men have contributed as much as he to the establishment of new fields of social research and teaching. He was a behavioral scientist long before the term became popular.
William F. Whyte
[See alsoGroups, article on The Study Of Groups; Industrial Relations; Organizations, article on Theories Of Organizations; Workers; and the biographies ofHenderson; Janet; Malinowski; Radcliffe-brown.]
(1933) 1946 The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. 2d ed. Boston: Harvard Univ., Graduate School of Business Administration. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Viking.
1945 The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization. Boston: Harvard Univ., Graduate School of Business Administration.
1947 The Political Problem of Industrial Civilization. Boston: Harvard Univ., Graduate School of Business Administration.
1948 Some Notes on the Psychology of Pierre Janet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Bendix, Reinhard; and Fisher, Lloyd H. 1949 The Perspectives of Elton Mayo. Review of Economics and Statistics 31:312-319.
Homans, George C. 1949 Some Corrections. Review of Economics and Statistics 31:319-321.
Roethlisberger, Fritz J.; and Dlckson, Wllliam J. (1939) 1961 Management and the Worker: An Ac-count of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paper-back edition was published in 1964 by Wiley.
Urwick, Lyndall F. 1960 The Life and Work of Elton Mayo. London: Urwick.
Warner, W. Lloyd et al. 1941-1959 Yankee City Series. 5 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.