Elton Mayo

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Elton Mayo
Born (1880-12-26)26 December 1880
Adelaide, Australia
Died 7 September 1949(1949-09-07)
Guildford, Surrey, UK
Occupation Psychologist, industrial researcher, organizational theorist
Spouse(s) Dorothea McConnel (married 18 April 1913)
children: Patricia and Gael

George Elton Mayo (1880–1949) was an Australian born psychologist,[1][2][3] industrial researcher and organizational theorist.[4] [5] Towards the end of his life, through his association with the Harvard Business School and the Hawthorne studies, he enjoyed a public acclaim granted to few social scientists of his day. Mayo has been credited with making significant contributions to a number of disciplines, including business management, industrial sociology, philosophy, social psychology. His field research in industry had a significant impact on industrial and organizational psychology.[6] According to Trahair, Mayo "is known for having established the scientific study of what today is called organizational behavior when he gave close attention to the human, social, and political problems of industrial civilization while he was a professor of industrial research at the Harvard Business School" (p. 15).[6]

Mayo's work helped to lay the foundation for the human relations movement.[4] He emphasized that alongside the formal organization of an industrial workplace there exists an informal organizational structure as well.[4] Mayo recognized the "inadequacies of existing scientific management approaches" to industrial organizations, and underlined the importance of relationships among people who work for such organizations.[5] His ideas on group relations were advanced in his 1933 book The Human Problems of an Industrialized Civilization, which was based partly on his Hawthorne research.[7]

Early life and education[edit]

Mayo was the eldest son of George Gibbes Mayo, a draftsman and later a civil engineer, and his wife Henrietta Mary, née Donaldson. He attended several schools in Australia (Queen's School, Collegiate School of St Peter, and University of Adelaide) and after 1901 attended medical school in Edinburgh and London, neither of which he completed. In 1903 he went to West Africa, and upon returning to London, began writing articles for magazines and teaching English at the Working Men's College. He returned to Adelaide in 1905 to a partnership in the printing firm of J. H. Sherring & Co., but in 1907 he went back to the university to study philosophy and psychology under Sir William Mitchell. He won the Roby Fletcher prize in psychology and graduated with honours (B.A., 1910; M.A., 1926[8]) and was named the David Murray research scholar. In 1911 he became foundation lecturer in mental and moral philosophy at the new University of Queensland and in 1919–23 held the first chair of philosophy there. He moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, but spent most of his career at Harvard Business School (1926–1947), where he was professor of industrial research.

Two influences on his career from his time at the University of Queensland were Mayo's friendship with the social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and his work with shell-shock cases returning from the First World War. Malinowski first met Mayo on his way to and from the Trobriand Islands; they became close friends and were regularly in touch until Malinowski's death in 1942. The work with shell-shock soldiers provided a focus for Mayo's interests in clinical psychology and developed his skills in psychotherapy. In this he was strongly influenced by the work on hysteria and obsession of the French psychiatrist, Pierre Janet, who became a critic of Sigmund Freud. For the rest of his working life, Mayo was an active psychotherapist and this practical experience was an important influence on his theoretical and methodological work in America.[citation needed]


Mayo helped to lay the foundation for Human Relations Movement, and was known for his industrial research including the Hawthorne Studies and his book The Human Problems of an Industrialized Civilization (1933).[9] The research he conducted under the rubric of the Hawthorne Studies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, underlining the importance of groups in affecting the behaviour of individuals at work. Fritz J. Roethlisberger, Mayo's graduate assistant, and William J. Dickson, head of the Department of Employee Relations at Western Electric, conducted the bulk of the practical research, with Mayo rarely visiting the Hawthorne plant in Cicero, Illinois.[4] Mayo's team carried out a number of "experiments" to look at ways of improving productivity. The research involved manipulating length of rest and lunch periods and piecework payment plans.[10] Mayo concluded that productivity partly depended on the informal social patterns of interaction in the work group; Parsons, however, showed that the Hawthorne studies, which were not really experiments, were too confounded to enable researchers to draw firm conclusions.[10] The qualitative aspects of the research suggested that norms of co-operation among workers were related to productivity. Mayo, in communicating to business leaders, advanced the idea that managers who understand the nature of informal ties among workers can make decisions for management's benefit.[4]

He concluded that people's work performance is dependent on both social issues and job content. He suggested a tension between workers' 'logic of sentiment' and managers' 'logic of cost and efficiency' which could lead to conflict within organisations.

Disagreement regarding his employees' procedure while conducting the studies:

  • The members of the groups whose behaviour has been studied were allowed to choose themselves.
  • Two women have been replaced since they were chatting during their work. They were later identified as members of a leftist movement.
  • One Italian member was working above average since she had to care for her family alone. Thus she affected the group's performance in an above average way.

Summary of Mayo's Beliefs:

  • Individual workers cannot be treated in isolation, but must be seen as members of a group.
  • Monetary incentives and good working conditions are less important to the individual than the need to belong to a group.
  • Informal or unofficial groups formed at work have a strong influence on the behaviour of those workers in a group.
  • Managers must be aware of these 'social needs' and cater for them to ensure that employees collaborate with the official organisation rather than work against it.
  • Mayo's simple instructions to industrial interviewers set a template and remain influential to this day:

Mayo's rules for conducting a clinical interview.

  • "Give your full attention to the person interviewed, and make it evident that you are doing so.
  • Listen – don't talk.
  • Never argue; never give advice.
  • Listen to: what he wants to say; what he does not want to say; what he can not say without help.
  • As you listen, plot out tentatively and for subsequent correction the pattern that is being set before you. To test, summarise what has been said and present for comment. Always do this with caution – that is, clarify but don't add or twist.
  • Remember that everything said must be considered a personal confidence.", p. 23[11]


Mayo's contributions to management theory were criticised by intellectual Daniel Bell. Writing in 1947, Bell criticised Mayo and other social scientists for "adjusting men to machines," rather than enlarging human capacity or human freedom.[12] Many, including Reinhard Bendix and Lloyd H. Fisher, criticized Mayo for generalizing his results of the Hawthorne studies. The two state that Mayo's research concerned small, isolated groups, and it was not clear that the conditions and supervision he achieved could have been replicated in large groups and factory settings.[13] His theories are also based upon the assumption that man, by nature, wants to cooperate and form groups, and he never allows for the possibility of José Ortega y Gasset's idea of "the stranger", built upon the proposition that man, by nature, is suspicious of others.[14] More recently, in 2003, James Hoopes criticised Mayo for "substituting therapy for democracy."[15]


  • George Elton Mayo: Psychology of Pierre Janet, London: Greenwood Press, 1972.
  • George Elton Mayo: The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Routledge, reprint edition 2003
  • George Elton Mayo: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, Ed. John Cunningham Wood, Michael C. Wood, 2004
  • George Elton Mayo: The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Routledge, 2007


  1. ^ http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mayo-george-elton-7541
  2. ^ http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/371017/Elton-Mayo
  3. ^ http://www.samemory.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=437&c=3767
  4. ^ a b c d e Cullen, David O'Donald. A new way of statecraft: The career of Elton Mayo and the development of the social sciences in America, 1920–1940. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 1992; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text.
  5. ^ a b Miner, J.B. (2006). Organizational behavior, Vol. 3: Historical origins, theoretical foundations, and the future. Armonk, NY and London: M.E. Sharpe. Miner indicates that Mayo was not a psychologist as some have understandably mistaken him to be: "An effective speaker and proficient in cultivating influential friends and mentors, he nevertheless had little by way of academic credentials and practically no training in the conduct of scientific research. In actual fact, he was much more a social philosopher than the psychologist or psychiatrist he would have preferred to be" (p. 60).
  6. ^ a b Trahair, R. C. S. (1984). Elton Mayo: The humanist temper. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction
  7. ^ Mayo, E. (1933). The human problems of an industrial civilization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
  8. ^ Trahair, R. C. S. (1984). Elton Mayo: The humanist temper. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction. "Mayo wrote of his appointment [to Harvard] to Sir William Mitchell, his mentor at the University of Adelaide. Immediately Mitchell personally arranged for Mayo to receive a Master of Arts degree. It was awarded for a thesis, presumably, on Mayo's research at Continental Mills" (p. 199), a textile manufacturing plant in Philadelphia.
  9. ^ Bourke, Helen. ""Mayo, George Elton (1880–1949)" by Helen Bourke". Adb.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 20 February 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Parsons, H.M. (1974). What happened at Hawthorne? Science, 183(4128), 922-932. doi: 10.1126/science.183.4128.922
  11. ^ Mayo, Elton (1949). The psychology of Pierre Janet. New York: Routledge.
  12. ^ Bell, D. (January 1947). The study of man: Adjusting men to machines. Commentary, 3, 79–88.
  13. ^ Hseuh, Y. (2002). The Hawthorne Experiments and the Introduction of Jean Piaget in American Industrial Psychology, 1929-1932. History of Psychology, 5(2), 163-189.
  14. ^ Sarachek, B. (1968). Elton Mayo's Social Psychology and Human Relations. The Academy of Management Journal, 11(2), 189-197.
  15. ^ Hoopes, James. (2003). False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management And Why Their Ideas Are Bad For Business Today. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.


  • J. H. Smith, The Three Faces of Elton Mayo, New Society (December 1980)
  • Rose, Nikolas. Governing the Soul the Shaping of the Private Self: the shaping of the private self. 2nd ed. London: Free Assoc. Books, 1999.

Further reading[edit]