Elton Mayo The Problem of Working Together 1932 BB Archive

elton mayo philosopher of the picket line 1946 fortune magazine

My grandfather, George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), the psychologist, organizational theorist and acknowledged founder of the Human Relations Movement, had innovative ideas and theories based on a lifetime of research which he often expressed in speeches that remain disturbingly relevant to the world today. His lecture The Problem of Working Together was delivered nationwide over NBC radio on April 30, 1932. His pioneering research at a Western Electric Company manufacturing plant near Chicago between 1924-33, collectively referred to as the Hawthorne Studies (named from the plant in which they took place), was influential in the development of the human relations movement and triggered research and debate into what it is that drives human behaviour at work.

We need, especially, to solve the problem of working together. There is no problem of greater importance at the present time. Every nation of the civilized world is facing one of the most serious economic and social crises in its history. And in every national group, though perhaps in varying degrees, there is difficulty in achieving effective co-operation, both within the group and internationally with other groups. One frequently hears the assertion that the present emergency is remarkable by reason of the lack of effective leadership. What is meant by this, more often than not, is that in this large-scale modern world we have failed to make special studies of the conditions that make for effective human co-operation.

The problem exists in industry and is no less important in the industrial than in the national situation. It exists in an especially intense form in the industries of the United States because here the personnel of a Iarge industry usually consists of “strangers drawn from the ends of the earth.” Even where this is not wholly true, the personnel generally have no common life outside the plant. Consequently the need for developing a common life within the plant, a capacity for working together effectively, is more urgent here than in other countries.

The human problems incidental to working together have proved themselves of major consequence in an inquiry developed continuously during the last five years by the Western Electric Company at its Hawthorne Works in Chicago. The study was not originally pointed in the direction I have indicated; that came later. It began partly as an attempt to find out the best ways of investigating human situations, and partly as an inquiry into the effect of such bodily and mental states as boredom or fatigue upon morale.

Factors Influencing Employee Motivation

This is how the experiment was conducted. Five girls, whose work was the assembling of telephone relays, were put into a special room partitioned off from their department, where they could work as slowly or as fast as they chose. The company officers in charge were already alert to the fact that human experiments cannot be as simply arranged as experiments with inorganic materials. So they provided for the continuous observation of as many aspects of the situation as possible — temperature, humidity, production, organic and mental welfare of the workers, the development of the personal and social relation. In this way the experimenters tried to anticipate the intrusion of unexpected developments affecting the experimental results — or at least to arrange for the observation of such developments, if they occurred. Then they were ready to introduce experimental changes — one at a time.

The Origins of the Coffee Break

During the first two years, these changes, introduced one after another, classify themselves in three phases. In the first phase, the changes were those involved in the proper arrangement of the so called “test room” — the transference of these young women to their prepared quarters and their constitution as a separate “gang” for purposes of wage payment. In the second phase, the changes introduced were different types of rest-pauses in an eight-and-three-quarter-hour day. During a period of five weeks, they had two five-minute rests each day. Later on, two periods of ten minutes were tried, and then six of five minutes. Two rests, one of fifteen minutes in mid-morning and one of ten minutes in mid-afternoon, were the final experiment of this phase. In the third phase, the rest-pause conditions of the final period in phase two were maintained and various experiments were made with a shorter working day, or a shorter working week. The results of these first three phases of experiment were profoundly interesting.

This interest is most easily illustrated by the changes that occurred in production. From the first, the production of the group as a whole, and of each member of it, rose steadily. There were minor fluctuations which, perhaps, bore some relation to the experimental changes — rest periods or whatnot. But the major change, a continuous and remarkable improvement, seemed from an early period of observation to relate itself not to the particular experiments, but to something more general in the changed industrial situation. Therefore, at the end of the three phases specified above, the officers in charge determined to test this possibility by reintroducing the conditions of work which originally existed in the department outside — a full forty-eight-hour week, no mid-morning refreshment. This nominal return to the original conditions of work lasted for twelve weeks; during the whole of this period the production curve ignored the change and rose steadily as before. In other words, the so-called return to the original conditions of work was only nominal; the actual and important difference of conditions, whatever it was, persisted in spite of the forty-eight-hour week and showed itself as before. At the end of the twelve-week period, the conditions of work reverted to the fifteen-minute-ten-minute rest system and production rose to new and record heights.

Almost simultaneously with the twelve-week experiment, the research division had instituted a new inquiry. This was an attempt to discover by means of personal interviews something as to the actual and human conditions of work in the establishment. This inquiry was conducted by officers specialized to the task; it also developed through various phases. Complete anonymity was guaranteed to the person interviewed. The company also paid him his average earnings for the time occupied by the interview. The interviewer encouraged the worker to talk and then listened to what he said, no matter what topic was chosen, for as long as he cared to continue. The average interview lasted for considerably more than an hour. Twenty thousand persons were interviewed in two years, and the interviews recorded. Wherever it was possible to make this material available for discussion by supervisory conferences without danger of infringing individual anonymity, this was done. And supervisory conferences and supervisory methods gained much in consequence.

Interview Techniques

I cannot attempt here to discuss these interviews; it will be better if I describe briefly the development that took place in the direction of the interest of the interviewing group. Interest  naturally tended to direct itself at first to comments on the material surroundings and conditions of work — trouble with fumes, insufficient heat in the winter months, crowded locker space, and the like. Very speedily it was noticed that comments upon persons were less reliable than comments on material conditions; when remarks were dropped about the supervisor or about other workers there was an unmistakable tendency to exaggeration and irrationality. This led the interviewing group to study some of the historic investigations of unrest, and of the origin of irrational preoccupations in an individual. Interviews taken at this time throw much light upon the relation between an individual’s present attitude and his personal history; and the relation between his domestic and his industrial situation also revealed itself as significant.

Then need arose for the study of a department as such, and the skilled technique derived from several years of interviewing was ready for application. The situation that disclosed itself was so interesting when studied in this way that the attention of the research division was brought back from personal histories and social development to the industrial situation itself. The discovery, if we may call it that, may be briefly described as follows: Laboratory and clinical psychological studies are interested in the individual — his vocational capacity or incapacity, his social “adjustment” or “maladjustment”. These studies are, and will always be, exceedingly important. The research division observed, however, that an individual who is not very capable, or not very well “adjusted” socially, may behave capably and normally when he works in a human surrounding that suits and sustains him. And, on the contrary, an exceedingly capable and normal human being will behave as if he were neither when he works in inappropriate surroundings. It became necessary therefore, in the development of the inquiry, to devise methods of accurately observing the interpersonal relations in any group of workers, their relation as a group to supervision and to their work; and it also became necessary to examine the relation of “official” work policies to the group morale. Only after such observation has been established is it possible to assess the value of the more individual inquiries.

On the basis of this study it may be said that industries of the present have developed many studies of “productive efficiency” and many “systems” designed to promote such efficiency. They have also devised elaborate “incentive” plans which are supposed to stimulate workers to special effort. But these systems are usually inapplicable, since in no instance have these studies been supplemented by careful inquiry into the actual facts of human interrelation when people are working together. The inapplicability or abstractness of such a system makes it necessary for the workers to devise, without due consideration, an actual working plan. This is often, quite unfairly, termed “restriction of output” — unfairly because it often represents about the best that can be done in the circumstances. It is, nevertheless, irksome both to workers and supervisors to be forced to give lip service to one plan and to work under another. Every human being involved in such a situation is aware of an essential conflict in the scheme of things, and is irked by it, so that wholehearted and effective co-operation is quite impossible. It is now thought probable that the surprising achievements of the five girl workers in the original experiment were due to the fact that this enduring conflict of desire and possibility had, for them, been got rid of. Studies of productive efficiency and of incentives are not enough.

How to Achieve Effective Collaboration?

The reorganization of modern industry must be based upon knowledge of how to achieve effective collaboration. This is the conviction to which the Hawthorne experiments have led. By means of such researches in practical working situations, we must find an answer to the problem of working together in factories, in societies, in international relations.

It is sometimes objected to studies of this character that, necessary as they are, they will nevertheless tend to increase that “technological unemployment” which is so serious a problem of our time. This comment can only be answered by turning to those wider aspects of the economic situation which lie beyond the intimate industrial.

The general restriction of civilized development unfortunately characteristic of today — a restriction which is the real cause of unemployment — is due to an international incapacity to work together, an incapacity of the civilized nations to collaborate freely in the tasks of civilization. Conferences which meet at Geneva or elsewhere do not always diminish suspicion and mistrust; too much confidence is placed in personalities and too little in knowledge and research.

Consider, for example, the general situation in Asia. One of those notable, and unexplainable, large-scale historic changes is obviously taking place; increasingly Asiatics are demanding an improved standard of living and are attempting to develop it. At present Western civilization cannot co-operate with Asia in this task because of Asia’s historically justifiable fear of exploitation. So we lose an economic “market” of more than nine hundred million people because we know nothing technically of the problem of working together. The industrial inquiry is, perhaps, a small beginning, but it is at least a beginning of research on the best ways of collaborating  — an investigation which is absolutely necessary if our civilization is to develop to higher powers.

Copyright © The George Elton Mayo Estate, April 1932. All rights reserved. Photo © Joseph Breitenbach for Fortune Magazine, 1946. Incantation © Charles Scheeler (1946) The Downtown Gallery. The copyright to all the content of this site is held by the individual authors and creators. All rights reserved. Enquiries: please use the contact form