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Compare and contrast the Human Relations School of thought with Taylorism

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Since the end of the 19th century, when factory manufacturing became widespread and the size of organisations increased, people have been looking for ways to motivate employees and improve productivity. This essay will focus on two of the earliest management approaches of Taylorism and the Human Relations School. First the central tenets of both models are outlined giving examples of how they are still applied in contemporary society. This is followed by a comparison of the two theories, which seem to be opposed at first glance, but are in fact similar in their basic approach. Finally, the relevance of both approaches for today’s managers is evaluated by identifying the option to bring them together as a basis for an overall Human Resource strategy.


Taylorism is a management approach initiated by Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), an American engineer. Taylor was concerned with inefficiency in manufacturing operations, in particular with the phenomena of “loafing” and “systematic soldiering”, i. e. the collusion of workers to restrict their output. He believed that the way to achieve higher efficiency would follow from detailed control of the work process by management and the decomposition of work into routine and predictable tasks .

Taylor introduced some basic principles to serve managers as a guideline. Firstly, the use of scientific methods to determine the one best way of doing a particular task . This is also known as the school of Scientific Management which argues that business decisions should be taken on the basis of fact and scientific principles, e. g. time and task study, instead of guesswork. Secondly, the systematic selection of the person with the most appropriate qualities to do the specified job and continuous training of the worker in the most efficient techniques . Thirdly, a clear functional division between management, which plans and organises the work, and workers, who execute the tasks following detailed instructions.

Hence, there is a “purely instrumental and low-involvement employment relationship” with the absence of mutual obligations between the two parties other than the exchange of pay for performance . Finally, the provision of financial incentives, usually in the form of piece-rate plans, which reflects Taylor’s theory of the economic man, a concept that assumes that workers are motivated solely through monetary rewards. Consequently, the basic motivational assumption of Taylorism was that work is inherently distasteful to most people, but they would tolerate it if pay was decent .

The application of Taylorism has been criticized for degrading individuals to become machinelike and discouraging innovation. Nevertheless, Taylor’s ideas are still widely applied in contemporary society as they caused enormous increases in productivity. Even though often termed differently, many current management tools and techniques are only modernized versions of Taylorism applying the same basic principles. Examples are job descriptions and process flowcharts which specify the content and standard work procedures of a job, or benchmarking and Business Process Reengineering, i. e. finding the best practice or optimum process design. Davenport (2005) also describes the current trend of Business Process Outsourcing as a manifestation of Taylor’s ideas: Centralised planning and determination of a best practice, which then becomes the process standard for entire industry sectors. The implementation of such commoditized processes eventually facilitates the comparison of capabilities provided by external organizations with those offered in-house, thus permitting well-informed outsourcing decisions .

Another form in which Taylorism is present in the modern world is described in Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis (1993), which is based on Braverman’s deskilling theory (1974). Braverman argues that the application of Tayloristic principles such as the separation of management from work and the fragmentation of labour results in the erosion of workers’ skills, the degradation of work and the proletarization of the labour force. Building on this, Ritzer argues that especially in the service sector professional occupations are replaced by Tayloristic “McJobs”. These are characterized by routine, fragmented and exactly specified tasks, thus allowing for unskilled and low-wage labour. One example is the substitution of teachers by lower-paid, unqualified classroom assistants for routine teaching duties .

Human Relations

As Taylorism is associated with the name of Frederick W. Taylor, so is the Human Relations School of thought with the name of Elton Mayo (1880-1949), a Professor at Harvard Business School. In the famous Hawthorne studies, which were undertaken between 1924 and 1932 at the Western Electric Company plant in Chicago, Mayo investigated whether workers’ performance is affected by work conditions, e. g. the level of lighting or the length of breaks. The surprising result was that workers’ productivity was not responding to variations in the physical conditions of work, but to the very fact of being the focus of attention as part of the investigations . Further experiments also revealed the existence of informal work groups, which exercise a strong influence over attitudes and performance of their members. After several experiments and extensive interviewing of the workforce Mayo concluded that productivity was much less related to work conditions than to the social situation of the workers. Specifically, interpersonal relationships, within the work group and between workers and their supervisors, were found to be more significant than wage incentives and the physical conditions of work .

The Human Relations School therefore encouraged a view that saw management’s role include the development of “good human relations”: Between itself and workers, through participation and showing concern in them, as well as between co-workers by recognizing their need for social interaction and belonging to a community . On the basis of these conclusions Mayo introduced the theory of the social man, which assumes that workers are motivated both by their economic and social needs. In summary, the basic motivational assumption of the Human Relations School was that people have a need for belonging, feeling useful and being recognized as individuals, which is more important than monetary rewards.

The conclusions of the Human Relations School still have a significant influence on contemporary society. Terms like teamwork or quality circle that dominate organizational life today have their origins in the Human Relations movement. One example for the impact of the Human Relations School is the automobile industry. This sector, that particularly adopted Taylor’s ideas with the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford, has shifted towards a Human Relations approach today. The implementation of group work attempts to reduce the alienative and anomic effects of assembly line work, while at the same time fostering people’s involvement and commitment. It includes shifting the emphasis in targets and bonus schemes away from the performance of the individual towards that of the work group or company as a whole. It also comprises the participation of workers through work group meetings and quality circles in which work-related problems are identified, analysed and resolved collectively. By involving employees in improving and restructuring operations, companies can both increase workers´ motivation and take advantage of their valuable ideas, creativity and greater insights into the work process.


The preceding analysis has clearly shown that Taylorism and the Human Relations School pursue two different motivational models, “the former being homo economicus, as opposed to the latter’s homo gregarious” . Taylor sees workers merely as interchangeable machine parts that can only be motivated with the help of financial incentives reflecting his concept of the economic man. The Human Relations School introduces the theory of the social man drawing the attention to the importance of workers´ social needs and advocating a more participative and employee-centred managerial style.

However, the two models are not as opposed as it seems at first glance since they are very similar in terms of their goals and underlying assumptions. Both approaches are looking for ways to motivate workers to increase efficiency. In order to achieve this they try to identify workers´ needs, which would then allow managers to “manipulate or influence these needs, making it easier for employees to improve their performance” . Thus, the Human Relations School introduced another concept of motivating workers by recognizing their need for social interaction, but the model did not contradict or challenge the fundamental tenets of Taylorism such as the emphasis on standardizing work tasks and separating conception and execution. The Human Relations approach focused on the conditions under which the work was done, but just like Taylorism it disregarded the task itself and the nature of the job as a factor of motivation and job satisfaction.

Hence, the two theories try to satisfy workers´ needs to improve their performance, but fail to consider the reverse, that good and meaningful work leads to job satisfaction and greater commitment . In this vein Sievers (1984) argues that motivation, either through economic or social incentives, becomes an issue only because meaning is eliminated from work . As these routine and fragmented jobs are meaningless and dissatisfying by themselves, motivation has to serve as “a surrogate for meaning” . So the Human Relations School is similar to Taylorism in its transactional approach to motivate workers with an incentive, but not through the actual tasks on the job. Each model focuses on one type of human needs, either economic or social ones, and its satisfaction. However, the implementation of financial incentives emphasized by Taylor does not contradict the satisfaction of employee’s social needs highlighted by the Human Relations School. Both models therefore rather complement one another than compete against each other.

Later developments such as Job Enlargement (1952), Job Enrichment (1968) and Quality of Working Life (1975) took into account that people are in a sense premotivated to contribute to meaningful goals. Thus, these theories concentrated on the nature of the job and stated that a meaningful job with a variety of tasks as well as some autonomy and responsibility leads to job satisfaction and greater commitment moving the human model from homo gregarious to homo actualis (managerialist) .


Although some industries have moved away from it, Taylorism and Scientific Management are still applied today, as they remain effective approaches, in particular for routine, low-skilled and low-involvement working environments. Due to the shift of western societies towards service economies, the old-style factory worker may be in decline, but such jobs still exist and even seem to be experiencing a powerful revival in the service sector of the 21st century (McDonaldization thesis). Therefore, even though not the predominant model any more, Taylor’s ideas continue to be relevant these days.

Nevertheless a new type of worker grows in importance as the industrialized world shifts towards a knowledge-based economy. These “knowledge workers” that are found, for example, in professional service firms require a completely different management approach. Their output is difficult to measure and decentralised decision-making is essential. Furthermore, they are much more motivated by esteem, the chance to meet new people and work in teams, than financial incentives . Therefore an approach building on the conclusions of the Human Relations School is much more useful in this case.

So, even if being recycled under new initiatives, the basic concepts of Taylorism and the Human Relations movement are still present in today´s economy. However, neither of the two models will be equally effective under all circumstances, but the particular situation, the nature of the job and the people involved, determines which approach is more appropriate.

Nevertheless, the ideas of Taylorism and the Human Relations School are not mutually exclusive. The contribution of the Human Relations School, the satisfaction of employee’s social needs, rather complements Taylor´s concept of financial incentives. The tenets of both models can therefore be combined into one overall strategy, with different emphases, either towards Taylorism or Human Relations, as circumstances demand.

However, neither Taylorism nor the Human Relations approach is complete. Both models are simplified in their assumptions and fail to consider that every individual is motivated by a different and complex set of interrelated factors that include besides money and social interaction a challenging, varied and meaningful job. The basic concepts of Taylorism and the Human Relations School, that proved effective in the past, are still useful today, but need to be complemented by newer ideas and imbedded in a more complex Human Resource strategy.


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