History of Management Thought – Elton Mayo Essay

This essay covers the life and key contributions of Elton Mayo, a renowned figure in management science, and how his theories have made a significant impact in management today.


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History of Management Thought – Elton Mayo Essay
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George Elton Mayo was born in Adelaide, Australia on 26th December 1880. Under heavy family influence, Mayo embarked on a course in medicine. However, he failed an examination which ended his chances of having a medical career. He went on to study philosophy and psychology at The University of Adelaide and graduated in 1911.

Following his graduation, he lectured at The University of Queensland from 1911 to 1923. In 1912, Mayo married Dorothea McConnel, a daughter of a respectable Australian family. They had two daughters, Patricia and Gael (Witzel 2005).

During World War I, Mayo treated shell-shocked soldiers, families and acquaintances through which he gained invaluable insights. This became the foundation of his approach to the analysis of problems in modern industries (Smith 1974).

In 1923, Mayo became a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Commerce and Finance where he examined the physical and psychological factors which caused high employee turnover at the Continental Mills (Merrill 1960).

Mayo was also significantly involved in the research relating to The Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company from 1924 to 1932. This study formed the basis of Mayo’s views on industrial settings as a social system (Pugh & Hickson 2007). Mayo died in Guildford, Surrey on 1st September 1949.


Mayo’s works and theories have made significant contributions to the evolution of management in organizations.

One of Mayo’s key theories was derived from the research undertaken at the Continental Mills. He concluded that the central problem underlying the high turnover rate of employees in the spinning department was due to “pessimistic reveries”. According to Mayo, the term pessimistic reveries, is the state of mind in which negative thoughts and distractions dominate the minds of individuals, interfering with their work performance (Mayo 1947). It is caused by exhaustion and monotony in work routines. This led to Mayo’s theory of implementing rest periods to ease employees’ fatigue which would dismiss these pessimistic reveries (Mayo 1924).

Another key point Mayo brought up from his studies at the Hawthorne plant was the significance of work groups in creating employees’ contentment (Smith 1974). According to Mayo, there is a tendency for groups to establish their own culture and build on their own ideologies, thereby influencing the way individuals behave at work (Tillett, Kempner & Wills 1970). An intimate environment created from these informal work groups provides a sense of belonging within individuals. This resulting recognition leads to higher productivity within organizations (Roethlisberger 1949).

Mayo also emphasized on the need to work towards effective human collaboration to re-establish the diminishing social function within industries. Based on Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie, he sees the term as the cause of social disorganization in society, raising a sense of inferiority and disenchantment within individuals (Wren & Bedeian 2009). To resolve this predicament, Mayo introduced the concept of managerial elites, who were trained to manage not only the technical aspects, but also the social aspects of industrial organizations (Smith 1998).

Mayo’s key publications include, “The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1933)”, “The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1945)” and “The Political Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1947)”. These books detailed the rationale for contemporary human relations movement and served as influential publications in the history of management theory (Wood & Wood 2004).

FACTORS WHICH INFLUENCED MAYO AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF HIS THEORIES The following factors will provide insights on how Mayo was influenced in the creation of his key works and theories.

Political Factors

During the First World War (1914 – 1918), Mayo gained invaluable experiences which assisted him to develop a basis towards his views on the complications in industrial society. These experiences arose from his psychotherapeutic treatment on the shell shocked soldiers, resulting in his assertion that rest periods given to the soldiers would significantly improve their mental state of health and performance. Drawing on this conclusion, Mayo believed that the introduction of rest periods to industrial employees could lead to higher productivity (Mahoney & Baker 2002).

Furthermore, his experience in WWI paved the way to his illustrious career as a practitioner with patients for thirty years (Mayo 1947). In 1919, the rise in conflicts and fall of civilization was apparent in Australia. Government intervention was thought to be the cure to this predicament. However, Mayo disagreed with this belief and felt that political interference would only further aggravate class conflicts, and ultimately cause the fall of society. He claimed that the best way to restore the diminishing social code was through effective collaboration (Bendix & Fisher 1949).

Economic Factor

The economic depression in 1929 resulted in shortened working hours at the Hawthorne plant, as well as the termination of the relay assembly test room studies. Faced with a rapidly changing society, Mayo placed greater emphasis on the need for effective collaboration and the recovery of social solidarity. This change in perspective received greater support from the public, thereby giving Mayo further recognition for his ideologies (Wren & Bedeian 2009).

Social Factor

The Industrial Revolution brought about a change to the management of worker relations in organizations. Managers placed greater emphasis on productivity of employees and failed to recognize their social needs. This caused a disruption to the social organization within industries (Kennedy 1998). Mayo did not oppose to this change, he simply proposed the need for individuals to adapt accordingly. This could be accomplished through studying the industrial society first hand and attaining social skills so as to enhance effective collaboration in organizations (Robinson 1946).

Intellectual Factors

Mayo was primarily influenced in his approach to psychology by the French psychologist, Pierre Marie Félix Janet. He was intrigued by Janet’s works on Hysteria and Obsession and this interest led him to practice psychotherapeutic treatment on soldiers returning from the First World War (Mayo 1947).

Frederick Winslow Taylor, widely regarded as the father of management science, had a very different approach towards scientific management as compared to Mayo. He had workers going through a series of incessant tasks and actions. This monotonous and demanding approach left workers with very little control, and contributed to extremely high rates of worker turnover within organizations (Mahoney & Baker 2002). Mayo believed that the “Taylorist Bossism” method of management would not be as productive as compared to his therapeutic methods (Hoopes 2003). Fritz Roethlisberger was acquainted with Mayo at the Harvard University and was introduced to Mayo’s ideas and theories. He went on to write a book based on Mayo’s beliefs and efforts entitled, Management and the Worker. Roethlisberger was a popular speaker and managed to carry on Mayo’s legacy as a spokesperson to the human relations movement (Mahoney & Baker 2002).


Mayo’s theories still remain relevant to managers today in spite of the ever changing nature of today’s organizational environment. The following is a discussion of this relevance. Mayo’s theory of implementing rest periods, to counter fatigue and exhaustion contributing to pessimistic reveries, is illustrated in the leading Internet search engine company, Google. The headquarters of Google, The Googleplex, provides many recreational facilities such as volleyball courts, pool tables and gymnasiums to help employees unwind. This interrupts any form of pessimistic reveries that could be experienced by their employees. With a more positive state of mind while working, the level of productivity within the company ultimately increases. The success of Google has clearly shown that Mayo’s theory, based on the need to eliminate pessimistic reveries, is still relevant in today’s society (Google 2010).

In addition, the relevance of Mayo’s key theory on the importance of work groups can be showcased in the global infrastructure, finance and media company, General Electric (GE). GE developed the Work-Out process which involves bringing staff together to identify areas in need of improvements. Within small groups, employees and managers discuss the issues and develop recommendations. This process helps create a vibrant working environment and has a positive influence on the way GE employees think and behave (Beam 2002). Based on the 1995 GE Annual Report, the annual dividends significantly increased to $1.4billion due to the incorporation of the Work-Out process (General Electric 1996). This example further highlights the relevance of Mayo’s theory in modern management.

Finally, Mayo also believed that effective collaboration was an essential tool for building a functioning social system in a rapidly changing industry. Cisco Systems, an industry leader in networking solutions and information technology, is one such company that sees effective collaboration as a high priority business tool for attaining success. This is supported by a study, sponsored by Cisco Systems, highlighting the successful strategies to effective collaboration (Astle 2009). This view is in line with Mayo’s theory that a socially handicapped organization would bring about negative attitudes amongst workers and hence, restrict the maximum productivity that could be attained otherwise. The call for effective collaboration is apparent in Cisco Systems, thus, showing how Mayo’s theory is still widely practiced in contemporary management.


Mayo’s theories and views have made a significant impact in the study of management history. In an ever changing organizational setting, which inevitably disrupts the social code within industries, Mayo stressed the need to restore effective collaboration amongst the employees through managerial elites. He also emphasized on the importance of work groups within organizations. Mayo’s influence on management science was a vital part of his legacy and his theories are still widely practiced today as they were in the beginning.

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