George Elton Mayo (December 26, 1880 – September 7, 1949) was an Australian-born American psychologist and sociologist. He is famous for the Hawthorne studies, which examined the effects of social relations, motivation, and employee satisfaction on factory productivity. This work was a landmark in industrial psychology. Despite later criticisms of the validity of his results, Mayo's work introduced the idea that the external factors (lighting, temperature, and so forth) were of lesser significance in determining productivity levels of workers than the social factors (such as work group relationships and feelings of belonging). Mayo and others extended this idea into larger social organizations, greatly enriching theories of management.
George Elton Mayo was born on December 26, 1880, in Adelaide, Australia, into the respected colonial family of George Gibbes Mayo and Henrietta Mary Donaldson. After graduating from the Collegiate School of St Peter, a high school in Adelaide, Elton tried to enroll into the medical school, but failed the university examinations. Consequently he was sent to England, where he turned to writing. He worked for the Pall Mall Gazette and taught at the Working Men’s College in London.
After his return to Australia he enrolled in the University of Adelaide, where he became one of the best students of philosophy, studying under Sir William Mitchell. After his graduation in 1912, he was appointed a foundation lecturer in philosophy and education at the newly established University of Queensland. In 1913, he married Dorothea McConnel, with whom he had two daughters.
During World War I he served on various government bodies, advising on the organization of work in the war, and wrote and lectured on industrial and political psychology and psychoanalysis. He became a professor at the University of Queensland in 1919, teaching philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, economics, education, and psychology. He also treated patients suffering from war traumas, and engaged in management consulting.
In 1922, he took a tour around the United States to speak on various social psychological topics, addressing particularly the problems of worker-management interaction. In 1923, he resigned from the University of Queensland and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. There he studied the value of work breaks on worker productivity in various textile firms. He attracted much attention from his psychologist colleagues for his advocacy of the importance of organizational sociology and psychology.
In 1926, Mayo was offered a research professorship in the recently established Harvard Business School. He initiated his famous Hawthorne Studies in 1928, and conducted them over the next five years. Mayo wrote his first book in 1933, entitled The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization.
In the late 1930s Mayo became increasingly interested in clinical psychology and anthropology, and taught the techniques of interviewing. When World War II broke out, he started research on teamwork and absenteeism in aircraft companies in southern California.
After the war Mayo decided to retire, and he withdrew to England, where his wife and daughters lived. He join a group at the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, which engaged in helping British industry recover in the post-war period. He also continued to lecture and give speeches. His health, however, suffered from the enormous effort he was investing in all these activities, and Mayo suffered a stroke in 1947. He died on September 7, 1949, in Polesden Lacey, England.
Elton Mayo published his first book in 1933, under the title The Social Problems of an Industrialized Civilization. He started with the thesis that there was a problem in modern civilization, rooted deeply in human relations in the workplace:
Our understanding of human problems of civilization should be at least equal to our understanding of its material problems. In the absence of such understanding, the whole industrial structure is liable to destruction or decay. A world-wide revolution of the Russian type would completely destroy civilization" (quoted in Trahair, 1984: 163).
Mayo claimed that industrialization solved the problem of production and initiated economic growth, but it had not improved the social status of the worker. There was a serious tension between workers and employers, one that, Mayo believed, could not be solved by socialism. He proposed instead to use psychological insights to tackle the problem. His Hawthorne Studies were designed for that purpose.
The Hawthorne Studies were conducted from 1927 to 1932, at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago. Mayo supervised the studies, which were actually carried out by his assistants Roethlisberger and Dickinson (1939). The goal was to examine the productivity and working conditions in the factory. Mayo carried out a number of experiments to look at ways of improving productivity, for example changing lighting conditions in the workplace. The original set of studies found that any change in lighting, whether an increase or decrease in lighting level, resulted in an increase in productivity (until the point where the lighting level was decreased to a point where the light was so low that the workers protested and production dropped dramatically).
Additional studies showed that variables such as rest breaks, work hours, temperature, and humidity all influenced workers' productivity. But what was also important, he realized, was that work satisfaction depended to a large extent on the informal social pattern of the work groups.
Mayo came to understand that people's work performance was dependent on both social issues and job content, while motivation played a significant role in the whole process. He suggested that a tension between workers' "logic of sentiment" and managers' "logic of cost and efficiency" leads to conflict within organizations, and thus compromise needs to be found between the two.
Mayo's work led him to believe:
One important result from the Hawthorne Studies is known as the "Hawthorne Effect," which refers to the increase in productivity by workers who perceive that they are being studied. Mayo and his research assistants noticed that in many instances the work productivity increased even when the lighting levels were decreased, or when salaries were lowered. After examining and eliminating all variables, Mayo has concluded that the only explanation left was that the attention Mayo and his assistants were paying to the workers had made them work harder. When workers know that they are being observed, they tend to work better and invest more effort in their job. Thus, the Hawthorne Effect became a useful insight for management.
Mayo's work contributed to management theory and to the development of fields such as organizational psychology. He was able to provide concrete evidence of the significance of human relationships in the workplace, which enriched existing theories of management. This started a revolution, with supervisors being re-trained in different forms of group dynamics to become more employee-centered.
Over the years the Hawthorne Effect has been used successfully by managers to increase productivity within short time frames. Mayo’s studies have also inspired different social theorists, such as Keith Davis, Chris Argyris, and Fred Herzberg, in creating their own theories of organizations.
Mayo's work in the Hawthorne Experiments was later modified by Douglas McGregor as it did not originally show how work practices and organizational structure should be modified in order to improve worker satisfaction and productivity. McGregor suggested that the links between organizational design, motivation, and productivity were more complex than first thought by Mayo.
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