MAYO, George Elton
26th December 1880 to 1st September 1949
Mayo was an academic psychologist best known for his work on industrial organisations. He played a leading role in the research programme at Western Electric, generally known as the Hawthorne experiments.
Mayo was born in Adelaide, South Australia on 26 December 1880, the son of a civil engineer. He was educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter in Adelaide, and studied medicine first at the University of Adelaide and later in Edinburgh and London. Abandoning the study of medicine, he worked for a while as a journalist in London before returning to Adelaide, where he worked for a time in the publishing industry. In 1907 he returned to the University of Adelaide, where he studied philosophy and psychology, graduating with honours in 1910 (he was awarded an MA in 1926). From 1911-23 he was a lecturer, then professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Queensland. He married the artist Dorothea McConnel in 1913.
During the First World War, Mayo was involved in developing treatments for shell-shock victims. He was also regular lecturer at the newly established Workers’ Educational Association.
In 1922 Mayo moved to the USA and took up a research post at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studying the causes of high labour turnover. In 1926 he moved to Harvard Business School in 1926 as an associate professor, becoming professor of industrial research in 1929. From 1928, Mayo was heavily involved along with other Harvard academics, notably Fritz Roethlisberger, in a large-scale research programme looking into worker productivity at Western Electric’s plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. This was one of the first large-scale research projects of its kind, lasting for more than three years and involving interviews with more than 10,000 employees.1 Though the methodology of the programme was controversial and its findings have been disputed, the Hawthorne experiments continue to be widely discussed and studied today.
Though suffering from poor health, Mayo continued to conduct further studies into workplace behaviour up to and during the Second World War. He also lectured widely, and was a frequent visitor to Europe where he gave further lectures. In 1947 ill health compelled him to retire, and he settled in England. He died at Guildford, Surrey on 1 September 1949.
Mayo is regarded, along with Mary Parker Follett, as one of the founders of the human relations school of management, a reaction to the highly mechanistic approach espoused by scientific management. That is perhaps a post hoc rationalisation. Mayo did not necessarily see himself as part of a school, and his work is only tangentially relevant to that of Follett. What interested Mayo was uncovering the root causes of behaviour in organisations. His work in closer in many ways to that of later industrial psychologists such as Herzberg, McGregor and the Aston group.
Mayo wrote a number of academic papers and essays but few substantive works. This again is probably the result of his deteriorating health. Of his three major works, Democracy and Freedom is a reaction to the climate of industrial and political turmoil in wartime Australia. Mayo believed this strife was a result of the psychological stresses created by the war, and argued for greater attention to the mental health of the populace. He also argued that work had to be meaningful to the worker; if it was not, then work itself could become a source of stress.
That basic idea informed much of his work at Hawthorne and after, and shines through strongly in his series of lectures on Hawthorne, published as The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation in 1933. These lectures encapsulate much of Mayo’s beliefs about work, including problems such as industrial unrest and absenteeism. It is a mistake, he says, to treat workers as cogs in a machine. Each worker is an individual, whose motivation to work is directly affected by both the workplace environment and factors in their private lives. Drawing on the Hawthorne research, he attempt to show how employers can improve productivity by treating their workers with greater respect and caring for their welfare. Mayo’s third book, The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, published as a kind of valedictory summing up of his career shortly before his retirement repeats and reinforces these themes.
Mayo delivered his Rowntree lecture while the work at Hawthorne was still ongoing, and the conclusions it reaches are therefore provisional. It is not clear how Mayo came into contact with Rowntree and the conferences, but Rowntree’s Boston connections may have played a role and Mayo often spent summers in Europe with his wife and family. From the text of the lecture, it seems clear that the conference organisers had asked Mayo for a report on what he and his team had discovered so far, and that is precisely what this lengthy paper – one of the longest ever delivered at the conferences – is.
Mayo opens with a few remarks about industrialisation and its supposed corrosive effect on people. He quotes André Siegfried, the French author of America Comes of Age and a noted critic of Americanisation and scientific management, as saying that industrialisation leads to ‘atrophied’ individuals who are worked by the mechanised production system until they are exhausted and can give no more. Mayo also notes that recent research by the British Industrial Fatigue Research Board showed a strong correlation between fatigue and unrest. However, said Mayo, things do not have to be this way, and he cites the Hawthorne research as evidence of this.
The rest of the paper is a description of the research as described by Mayo and his colleagues in their books, and it would be pointless to rehearse the material here. At the end of the paper, however, Mayo offers five provisional conclusions from the research:
- Total daily output is increased by rest periods, and not decreased.
- The conditions of work during the working day have more effect on production than the number of days in the working week.
- ‘Outside’ influences, i.e. conditions not directly relevant to the task, tend to create either a buoyant or depressed spirit, which is reflected in production.
- The method of the supervisor is the single most important ‘outside’ influence. Home conditions may react upon the worker and his work; a supervisor who can ‘listen’ and not ‘talk’ can almost completely banish the effect of any depressing influences.
- Pay incentives do not stimulate production if other working conditions are wrong.
‘Mechanisation is of no great importance in an industry that sets itself, intelligently and diligently, to discover what human changes of method must accompany the introduction of repetitive methods of work’, Mayo says.
We cannot make individuals stupid; we may make them dissatisfied, psychoneurotic, or restless. It is urgently necessary that industry should give as much attention to human as it has to material inquiry. With the institution of adequate researches, physiological, psychological and social, society has nothing to fear from industrial mechanisation.
Democracy and Freedom: Essays in Social Logic, 1919.
The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, 1933.
The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, 1945.
Bruce, K., ‘George Elton Mayo’, in M. Witzel and M. Warner (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Bourke, H., ‘May, George Elton’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986.
Trahair, R., The Humanist Temper: The Life and Work of Elton Mayo, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1984.
Urwick, L.F., The Golden Book of Management, London: Newman Neame, 1956.
Witzel, M., A History of Management Thought, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2017.
Wren, D., The Evolution of Management Thought, 5th edn, New York: John Wiley, 2005.
‘Recent industrial researches of Western Electric Company in Chicago’, 25th-29th September 1930, Balliol College