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The theory of human relations and its application to organizations

The theory of human relations and its application to organizations

June 16, 2024

The world of work has changed a lot throughout history. From the typical trades of the Middle Ages to the large and small companies in which we work today, going through the work in the factories after the Industrial Revolution, the changes both in regard to the vision of the work and in what involves the worker or the way in which it should be treated has been happening.

Within this field, numerous studies have been carried out from various disciplines such as psychology, leading some of them to changes in the vision of society and the employers of the worker and the importance of their welfare in their productivity.

Although initially the worker was seen as a "vague" who had to motivate mainly with the salary, little by little they were observed that there was a great amount of factors that influence the worker, his productivity and his general welfare. This progressive change would greatly help the Hawthorne studies and the elaboration of the theory of human relations , about which we will talk throughout this article.


  • Related article: "Psychology of work and organizations: a profession with a future"

Precedents in organizational psychology

While the fact that the human and relational factor is important in the workplace is nowadays considered something common and logical, the truth is that at the time that this notion was introduced, it meant a revolution. And is that the theory of human relations, elaborated by Elton Mayo , began to develop around the 30s.

At that time the general conception of organizations and work in it was a classic vision, focused on production and saw the worker as a vague and idle entity that needed to be spurred by the salary to work, or else understood as a machine that had to be guided from the positions of leadership (the only ones on whom depended the fact of organizing and dominating the company).


It would not be until the emergence of psychology and its application to the workplace and industry that the factors that affect the worker from a humanistic and psychological perspective would not begin to be analyzed. Thanks to that and to an increasing need both to humanize and to democratize production (dissatisfaction, abuses and workers' revolts were frequent), it would come to the elaboration of a conception closer to the industrial worker.

The theory of human relations

The theory of human relations is a theory of the psychology of organizations, which proposes that the most important part of an organization is human and interactive and that the worker's behavior is more related to belonging to a social group, their well-being with the environment and the existing social norms within said group that with the type of task performed, how it is structured or with the receipt of a specific salary (which was believed to be the sole motivator of the worker).


Basically, it establishes the importance of the social environment in which the worker develops and the psychological impact of this means when explaining behavior, performance and labor productivity.

In this theory, which appears as a reaction to excessive control over the task that existed during the time, the focus of interest stops being on the task itself and on how the organization is structured to focus on the worker and the network of social relationships and friendship what form within the organization.

Also, the worker no longer sees himself as an independent element whose performance depends solely on his will to begin to observe that it depends to a large extent on his relationship with the group and how it is organized.

Moreover, thanks to the studies carried out, it would begin to take into account the power of the network and links that are formed informally among workers, the importance of the perception of social support and the impact of these processes when it comes to improving the performance or reduce it to conform to the norm of the belonging group . It would also allow the development of new systems and strategies aimed at improving and optimizing the development of the members of the organization, as well as aspects such as the valuation of communications and feedback to employees.

  • You may be interested: "What is the Hawthorne Effect?"

The Hawthorne experiments

The theory of human relations and subsequent developments derive from the above-mentioned aspects, but probably one of the most important milestones that led to its birth were the Hawthorne experiments, conducted at the Hawthorne factory of Elton Mayo and other collaborators .

Initially these experiments were started in 1925 with the initial intention was look for a relationship between lighting and employee productivity , May begin to assess the working conditions (relatively good for the time) and the performance of workers in different lighting conditions. In this aspect they did not find great variability, but they were able to locate other variables of great importance: the psychosocial ones.

After that, they began to analyze, from 1928 to 1940, these humanistic and psychosocial factors. In a first phase would be analyzed the working conditions and the effect of the feelings and emotions of employees to work, the environment and even with respect to their role in it. From this it was extracted that personal consideration played a large role in the performance and satisfaction of workers .

It was in the second phase that one of the great divergences with the most classic theories was found: the behavior of the workers was more linked to the social and organizational than to the individual characteristics. This was achieved through a series of interviews in which researchers sought workers to express their opinion regarding their work.

In a third phase, the work groups and the interaction between workers were analyzed, with experiments in which a payment system was used in which only a high wage was maintained if there was an increase in the total production, to which the workers responded by uniformizing its productivity to go increasing it little by little reducing initially its level the most efficient ones to obtain that all could go increasing the total yield: they sought to be consistent in their performance in order that all the members of the group could have some stability.

There was so much punishment for those who did not respect the group norm (who did not follow the informal norm was pressured) as a search for compliance with the majority .

The fourth and final phase focused on studying the interaction between the formal organization of the company and the informal organization of employees, seeking an interaction in which workers could express their problems and conflicts. The conclusions of these experiments would lead to the generation of an interest in the employee and his connections, which would gradually expand.

Bibliographic references:

  • Chiavenato, I. (1999). General Introduction to Administrative Theory. (5th ed.) Editorial Mc Graw Hill.
  • Rivas, M.E. and López, M. (2012), Social and Organizational Psychology. CEDE Preparation Manual PIR, 1. CEDE: Madrid.

The Human Relations Movement: Definition and Significance to Organizational Behavior (June 2024).


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