Human Relations Theory of Management: Meaning, History, Experiment, Examples, and Pros/Cons

What is Human Relations Theory?

The Human Relations Theory of Management, established by Elton Mayo in the 1920s, focuses on the importance of social and psychological factors in the workplace. It views employees as social beings with unique needs and behaviors, rather than mere economic entities.

This theory emphasizes the significance of individual job satisfaction and how it leads to increased motivation and productivity. The organization is seen as a social system comprising both formal elements, such as the organizational structure, and informal aspects, like interactions between individuals within groups.

Effective communication, positive leadership, and teamwork are crucial in creating a supportive work environment. The theory stresses the influence of group dynamics on employee performance. Workers’ attitudes and feelings are considered essential for achieving organizational goals and enhancing overall productivity.

A Brief History of Human Relations Theory

The Human Relations Theory, developed by Elton Mayo (1880-1949), is a management approach that emphasizes the importance of social and psychological factors in the workplace. In the 1920s, Mayo conducted a series of experiments at the Hawthorne plants in Chicago, known as the Hawthorne studies, which marked the beginning of this theory. These experiments focused on understanding the impact of various work conditions on employee productivity.

Mayo’s findings surprised him; he discovered that social factors, like job satisfaction and a sense of belonging, had a significant influence on worker performance. This led him to conclude that workers are not just machines, but individuals with unique needs and preferences.

As a result, the Human Relations Theory was born, advocating for treating employees as individuals and recognizing the importance of positive social interactions within the workplace. Mayo’s research highlighted the significance of teamwork, effective communication, and participative management.

The Human Relations Theory revolutionized the way organizations viewed their employees, shifting the focus from pure efficiency to understanding the complex human aspects of work. It laid the foundation for modern management practices that prioritize employee satisfaction, motivation, and overall well-being.

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What is Hawthorne Study?

The Hawthorne Study was a series of experiments conducted at the Hawthorne plant in the 1920s by the pioneer of this theory Elton Mayo and his research team. The study aimed to understand how different work conditions affected worker productivity.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that social factors, like job satisfaction and group dynamics, played a significant role in influencing employee performance. This study led to the development of the Human Relations Theory in management.

Studies in Hawthorne Study

Mainly the four studies included in the Hawthorne study, include the following. In addition, the human relations theory of management is based on the following Hawthorne studies.

  1. Illumination Experiment: The Illumination Experiment was one of the initial studies conducted during the Hawthorne Study. It aimed to investigate the impact of lighting levels on worker productivity. Researchers altered the intensity of lighting in the work environment and observed its effects on employee performance. Surprisingly, they found that regardless of whether the lighting was increased or decreased, worker productivity improved. This unexpected result led them to realize that the workers’ perception of being observed and valued played a more significant role in productivity than the actual lighting conditions.
  2. Relay Assembly Test Room Experiment: In this experiment, a group of female workers was isolated in a separate test room, away from the regular factory floor. The researchers introduced changes to their working conditions, such as rest periods and piece-rate wages. Interestingly, the productivity of the workers improved regardless of the changes made. This outcome led the researchers to understand that the workers’ sense of being part of a special group and receiving attention contributed to increased motivation and performance.
  3. Mass Interviewing Program: The Mass Interviewing Program involved conducting interviews with a large number of employees to gather their opinions and feedback about their work environment. The researchers aimed to understand the workers’ attitudes and perceptions toward their jobs. The interviews revealed that the workers valued social interactions, job satisfaction, and a sense of belonging in their workplace. This finding further emphasized the significance of social factors in influencing employee motivation and productivity.
  4. Bank Wiring Observation Room Experiment: In this experiment, a group of male workers in a bank wiring room was observed and studied. The researchers noted the effects of different payment schemes and incentives on their performance. They found that the workers developed their informal social norms, like group cooperation and peer pressure, which significantly influenced their work output. This study highlighted the importance of group dynamics and social interactions in shaping individual behavior and performance.

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Findings of Hawthorne Study

The major findings of Hawthorne’s studies include the following:

  1. The Hawthorne Effect: The most notable finding was the discovery of the “Hawthorne Effect.” This phenomenon indicated that employees tend to improve their performance simply because they are being observed and paid attention to. It showed that when workers feel valued and noticed, their motivation and productivity increase, irrespective of the changes made in their working conditions.
  2. Social Factors Influence Performance: The study highlighted the importance of social factors in influencing employee behavior and productivity. Workers’ interactions with their colleagues and supervisors, as well as the establishment of informal group norms, played a crucial role in shaping their attitudes and work output.
  3. Importance of Informal Relationships: The researchers observed that informal relationships within the workplace, such as friendships and group dynamics, significantly affected employee satisfaction and performance. Workers’ sense of belonging to a supportive team and feeling appreciated by their peers positively impacted their work attitude.
  4. Psychological Needs and Motivation: The Hawthorne Study emphasized that employees’ psychological needs, such as recognition, job satisfaction, and a sense of purpose, are essential motivators. It indicated that financial incentives alone were not enough to drive high productivity; the fulfillment of emotional and social needs was equally vital.
  5. Participative Decision-Making: The study revealed that involving employees in decision-making processes, allowing them to contribute ideas and opinions, increased their commitment to the organization and willingness to embrace changes.

Elements of Human Relations Theory

The elements of Human Relations Theory can be pointed out as follows:

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  1. Focus on People: Human Relations Theory prioritizes individuals over machines or economics, recognizing the importance of understanding human behavior and motivations in the workplace.
  2. Social Context: The theory acknowledges that the organizational environment is a social system where interactions between individuals play a significant role in shaping behavior and productivity.
  3. Influence of Human Relations: It highlights the importance of social factors, such as job satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and inclusion in decision-making, in motivating employees and impacting their performance.
  4. Group Dynamics: The Theory of Human Relations emphasizes that the norms and relationships within work groups influence the behavior and attitudes of individual workers.
  5. Job-Related Symbols of Power: The theory acknowledges that certain job-related symbols of power within work groups maintain the social structure and influence employee behavior.
  6. Individualized Approach: Managers should understand and consider the unique needs and preferences of individual workers, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to maximize motivation and productivity.
  7. Employee Participation: Employees are more likely to be open to changes and motivated when they are given opportunities to participate in decision-making and contribute to the organization’s goals.

Pros and Cons of Human Relations Approach of Management

Let’s explore some pros and cons of the human relations approach of management.


  1. Improved Employee Motivation: Human Relations Theory emphasizes understanding individual needs and creating a positive work environment. When employees feel valued, respected, and part of a supportive team, their motivation to perform at their best increases.
  2. Increased Employee Satisfaction: By recognizing the social and psychological aspects of work, the Human Relations Theory of Management fosters job satisfaction. Satisfied employees are more likely to be committed to their jobs and remain loyal to the organization.
  3. Enhanced Teamwork: This theory focuses on group dynamics, promoting effective teamwork and collaboration among employees. When employees work well together, it leads to better communication, problem-solving, and innovation.
  4. Better Communication: Effective communication is a key component of Human Relations Theory. When communication is open, transparent, and encouraged, it reduces misunderstandings, and conflicts, and fosters a positive work culture.
  5. Higher Productivity: Happy and motivated employees are more productive. When workers feel supported, they are likely to put in more effort and be more committed to achieving organizational goals.
  6. Reduced Employee Turnover: With increased job satisfaction and motivation, employees are less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. This reduces employee turnover, saving the organization time and resources in recruiting and training new staff.
  7. Positive Organizational Culture: Human Relations Theory promotes a positive and inclusive organizational culture. When employees feel valued and respected, it leads to a happier and healthier work environment, attracting top talent and contributing to the organization’s overall success.


  1. Overemphasis on Informal Relationships: Human Relations Theory tends to focus heavily on informal relationships and group dynamics, which may lead to neglecting formal structures and rules essential for effective management in larger organizations.
  2. Ignoring Power Dynamics: This theory may overlook power dynamics within the workplace, resulting in potential issues of inequality and exclusivity. Addressing power imbalances is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive work environment.
  3. Limited Focus on Performance: While Human Relations Theory emphasizes motivation and satisfaction, it may not give enough attention to actual performance and outcomes. Effective management should strike a balance between employee well-being and achieving organizational goals.
  4. Ignoring Employee Heterogeneity: Treating all employees as having similar needs and motivations may overlook the diverse nature of individuals in the workplace. Recognizing individual differences is essential to cater to unique needs and boost overall employee satisfaction.
  5. Limited Applicability: This management theory may not be universally applicable to all organizations and industries. Smaller or less complex organizations may find it more relevant, while larger and more complex ones might require a more comprehensive management approach.

Who are the Major Contributors to the Human Relations Theory of Management?

The major contributors to the Human Relations Theory of Management are:

  1. Elton Mayo (1880-1949): Often regarded as the “Father of Human Relations,” Elton Mayo, an Australian psychologist, conducted the famous Hawthorne studies at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant in the 1920s. His research focused on understanding the impact of social factors on employee behavior and productivity, leading to the development of the Human Relations Theory.
  2. Fritz J. Roethlisberger (1898-1974): A collaborator of Elton Mayo, Roethlisberger was instrumental in conducting the Hawthorne studies. He co-authored several influential works, including “Management and the Worker” (1939), which explored the social dynamics of the workplace.
  3. Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933): An early pioneer in organizational theory, Follett contributed to the Human Relations approach by advocating for a more participative and cooperative style of management. Her work emphasized the importance of integrating workers into the decision-making process and promoting positive group dynamics.
  4. George Elton Mayo (1911-1993): The son of Elton Mayo, George Elton Mayo, also made notable contributions to the Human Relations Theory. He expanded on his father’s research and further explored the social aspects of employee motivation and behavior.

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Examples of Human Relations Theory of Management

Is the human relations theory still relevant? The following examples further prove the relevance of this management theory in today’s business landscape.


Google is known for its implementation of the Human Relations Theory through various employee-centric practices. They prioritize creating a positive work environment that fosters collaboration and teamwork. They offer numerous employee benefits, such as on-site wellness programs, flexible work hours, and opportunities for skill development. Google’s open communication culture encourages employees to share their ideas and participate in decision-making, giving them a sense of ownership and motivation to contribute to the company’s success.


Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer, is another company that embraces the Human Relations Theory. They focus on employee satisfaction and prioritize building strong relationships among team members. Zappos promotes a culture of trust and empowerment, where employees are encouraged to take ownership of their work and are given the freedom to make decisions. They offer generous benefits and prioritize employee well-being, aiming to create a supportive and positive work environment where employees feel valued and motivated to perform their best.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is renowned for its employee-friendly approach, aligning with the Human Relations Theory. They emphasize teamwork and employee engagement, fostering a family-like atmosphere within the company. Southwest encourages employees to participate in decision-making processes and values their contributions. The company offers various recognition programs and rewards outstanding performance, further motivating employees to excel in their roles.


Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, exemplifies the Human Relations Theory by prioritizing employee well-being and job satisfaction. They offer a unique work culture that promotes work-life balance and environmental consciousness. Patagonia provides employees with opportunities to engage in environmental initiatives, reinforcing a sense of purpose and pride in their work. The company’s commitment to social responsibility and employee development contributes to a positive work environment and high levels of employee motivation and loyalty.

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