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George Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo was born in Adelaide, South Australia on 26 December 1880 and died in Guildford, Surrey on 1 September 1949. He was the second child of a respected colonial family; his father was a civil engineer, and his mother Henrietta Mary nee Donaldson was devoted to her children’s education and success. Elton was expected to follow his grandfather into medicine, but failed at university studies and was sent to Britain. Here he turned to writing, wrote on Australian politics for the Pall Mall Gazette and taught at the Working Men’s College in London. He then returned to Australia to work in an Adelaide publishing business where his radical management practices were not appreciated. He returned to university and became the most brilliant student of the philosopher Sir William Mitchell, won prizes for scholarship and in 1912 was appointed a foundation lecturer in philosophy and education at the newly established university in Queensland. Here he married Dorothea McConnel, who had been educated in landscape art at the Sorbonne and frequently visited Europe. They had two daughters, Patricia Elton Mayo, who would follow her father’s management thinking and had an interesting sociological career, and Ruth, who became a British artist and novelist and took the name Gael Elton Mayo.

Mayo taught philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, economics, education and the new psychology of Freud, Jung and especially Pierre Janet. From the beginning he trained himself in public speaking, and became an outstanding lecturer. He spoke at Worker’s Education Association classes and tutorials, and addressed unions and professional bodies. He much impressed Bronislaw Malinowski when they met in 1914, and they became good friends. During the First World War he served on government bodies, advised on the organization of work for the war effort, wrote and lectured on industrial and political psychology and psychoanalysis, and contributed a lively piece (Mayo and Booth 1916) to Lady Galway’s Belgium Book. He was made a professor of philosophy in his university’s reorganization after the war.

With a young Brisbane doctor, Thomas R.H. Matthewson, who had sought advice on the management of patients suffering war neurosis, Mayo refined his clinical skills in psychotherapy. He began to apply his observations on Matthewson’s patients, and the ideas of the new psychology to political and industrial problems and political agitators (Trahair 1981, 1982). He felt he could trace society’s ills to psychological causes (Bourke 1982).

Mayo applied unsuccessfully for a directorship of adult education at the University of Melbourne, and went there to lecture on psychoanalysis before taking sabbatical leave to Britain in 1922. He intended to visit the United States on his way to the UK to work with a medical scholar at Oxford. However, from the moment he landed in San Francisco he was sought as a speaker on many social psychological topics, attracted the attention of industrialists and industrial psychologists for his thoughts on psychological causes of industrial unrest, and readily explained America’s industrial problems by reference to understandable irrationalities among workers, the poor skills of managers and the inhuman conditions of work that made for an insane society (Mayo 1919, 1922a, 1922b).

When his university refused to extend Mayo’s unpaid sabbatical leave, it forced his resignation. Destitute in the United States, he vigorously sought help from those who had led him to believe there was support readily available for his ideas and industrial research plans. Unexpectedly, he was promised an income for six months by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, and given a temporary post at the University of Pennsylvania in 1923. There he researched the value of rest pauses on worker productivity in various textile firms. In one study he introduced regular pauses from the back-breaking work in a cotton-spinning mill and saw improvements in worker productivity. The practice was assiduously opposed by the foremen who, when Mayo was absent from the plant, returned workers to past practices. The effect of their intervention was a dramatic fall in productivity, thus illustrating the effectiveness of Mayo’s rest pauses. Mayo drew attention to this quasi-experiment to support his view on the value of treating employees humanely. Using these data, and the psychological and sociological ideas in his Democracy and Freedom and related papers (Mayo 1919, 1922a, 1922b), and his remarkable gift for public speaking, Mayo attracted much attention from notable American psychologists for his views on the value of the new psychology, in particular, the role of mental reveries for understanding variations in individual behaviour and social interaction at work.

Within two years he was offered a choice of the directorship of the new psychological laboratory at McGill University or a research professorship in the recently invigorated Harvard Business School, with enormous support from the Rockefeller Foundation. He chose the latter. In Boston, he wanted to study the impact of changed working conditions on the physical and psychological welfare of employees. To do this, he aimed to validate an index of blood pressure which correlated with the workers’ psychological and physical states of fatigue. This, he believed, he could then relate to both the social and psychological welfare of employees at work, at home and in community life. His efforts to secure research sites were supported in principle by higher management, and in person by employees, but were rejected by middle managers. Meanwhile he taught occasionally at Harvard Business School, and took on assistants and some young scholars who seemed in need of counselling as well as research supervision (Roethlisberger 1977).

In March 1928 Mayo was approached by the Western Electric Company’s controller of manufacturing to give his views on an unusual research finding which showed that in some cases employees’ productivity varied inversely with variations in the rest pauses they were expected to adopt. Mayo was asked if organic differences between workers could explain these odd findings. He concluded that attitude to work seemed to affect the behaviour of the employees. This led management to introduce a large-scale interviewing programme at a plant in Chicago, to establish what the workers felt and thought about their work. When he learned of the programme in September 1928, Mayo became interested in the training of interviewers.

By March 1929 the company wanted Mayo to take full responsibility for the programme of interviewing 10,000 employees. He suggested the firm could train its own interviewers with a little guidance and encouragement from him. His guidance was simple: give your full attention to the interviewee, and make it evident that you are doing so; listen and do not talk; never argue or give advice; listen for what the interviewee wants to say, does not want to say, and cannot say without help; as you listen plot tentatively, and for subsequent correction, the pattern of experience that is being presented before you; to test your grasp of the pattern summarize cautiously and clearly what has been said without twisting it; and finally, treat what has been said in confidence. These rules became the basis of Mayo’s clinical technique for data collection, and his sociological training for humane management. For three years, Mayo collaborated with the researchers at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago. He nurtured the relations he had founded between them and the Harvard Business School, and sought to protect the work from both professional criticism and the business depression.

On his annual journeys to Europe during the 1930s to be with his wife and daughters, Mayo took every opportunity at university meetings, academic conferences in Britain and on the European continent, and at informal gatherings with colleagues to outline and discuss the work at the Hawthorne Works, and when he returned alone to the United States he would tell the management at the Hawthorne plant and their superiors at company headquarters in New York how impressed were his British and European contacts with their research. In this way the Hawthorne studies became synonymous with Mayo’s research, and many textbook writers later assumed Mayo had been the director of what would become ground-breaking research in American industrial sociology and applied social psychology.

In fact, he was a counsellor and guide to the management’s conduct of the research, and an interpreter of their findings. When the 1930s Depression put paid to this unusual and costly research, Mayo agreed to write up and publish the findings in several books. Ill health made this impossible; the task was given to Mayo’s assistant Fritz Roethlisberger and to Bill Dickson from the company (Roethlisberger 1977); and Thomas North Whitehead, a British engineer, took on the task of presenting the statistical – and to some degree qualitative – analysis of the work (Whitehead 1938). It fell to Mayo to summarize and interpret the work in his Lowell lectures at Harvard (Mayo 1933).

The major book (Roethlisberger and Dickson 1939) was finished in 1936 but nothing could be published until Western Electric’s senior managers were satisfied that they had met advice relating to legal problems the firm was facing in the mid-1930s. The book was not expected to be a great success. But after its review, sales took off and remained high for almost twenty years. Entitled Management and the Worker, the book appeared on managers’ shelves, and attracted study and analysis on both sides of the industrial conflict. Many academic critics attacked the work when it appeared. It was not until 1991 that there appeared a most comprehensive study of the research and its shortcomings by an Australian historian (Gillespie 1991).

During the late 1930s Mayo was primarily interested personally in clinical psychology and anthropology, and taught his few students the techniques of interviewing and understanding how individuals defined their social situations. He was about to begin a study of the social context of industrial organization at a plant in Newcastle, but the Second World War ended that and he was instead drawn into research on teamwork and absenteeism in aircraft companies in southern California. In addition, the Rockefeller grant had to be renegotiated. In late 1941 and early 1942 Mayo endured many personal losses, and decided to retire. He spent his time giving talks and writing his final works (Mayo 1945, 1947a, 1947b). On retiring he did not return to Australia but chose to live in England, his wife’s favoured place, and after talking with the few industrial psychologists in Britain, agreed to join a group at the National Institute of Industrial Psychology to encourage ways for managers to integrate technical with social skills in industry, and to establish adaptive view of society to help Britain overcome the devastation of war and rebuild industry. But funds for this research were not provided by the British government; in fact, it was his daughter Patricia Elton Mayo and her research work at the British Institute of Management that attracted government funds. Nevertheless, Mayo began an arduous round of lecturing, but he overstepped the limits of his health. He had serious stroke in December 1947, was unable to work, and after a few years of retirement in an apartment at the National Trust’s manor of Polesden Lacey, in Surrey, he died.

Mayo wrote on many topics other than industrial matters, and a complete list appears in Trahair (1984a). The central theme in his industrial work was that the too rapid and poorly planned application of new technologies to work had given rise to excessive strains at work, disturbed the relation between work and community, made workers feel alien to their traditional employment, and sent them home physically exhausted and psychologically spent. Their response was adequate to this situation: they ruined their families, founded unions, went on strike, and in too many instances became evermore irrational, childish and endangered the social order with demands not for reform but revolution.

In his day, Mayo’s view were too startling and not always attractive or well understood by technically trained but interpersonally unsophisticated managers, who used money alone to resolve employment problems. Mayo saw similar views among union leaders. To him, the solution to conflict was to integrate intelligently the technology of work with the social skills needed to maintain people at work. Education was the means to integrate the technology if human organization of work was to be productive and gratifying. For this reason he advocated collaborative and adaptive relations, and taught that much could be learned from the study of small groups of effective workers in diverse cultures. Anthropology could be a great boon, social psychology was important, and much could be learned about mental ill health from psychiatry. Above all the modern manager and administrator ought to learn the skills of listening and observing, and bringing goodwill to the problems of industrial civilization.

After the Second World War, human relations became a popular term to direct conflict resolution at work, and a vital topic for the training of middle managers and the education of senior mangers; but the phrase took on diverse meanings, led to a variety of manipulative practices, and today it has been replaced with a new language for the application of psychology to work itself as well as work organization. Nevertheless, modern forms of human relations at work still emphasize the value of participative decision making and personal autonomy for productive and gratifying employment.


Bourke, H. (1982) Industrial Unrest as Social Pathology: The Australian Writings of Elton Mayo’, Historical Studies 20(79): 217-33.

Gillespie, R. (1991) Manufacturing Knowledge, London: Cambridge University Press.

Mayo, E. (1919) Democracy and Freedom: Essays in Social Logic, Workers’ Educational Series No. 1, Melbourne: Macmillan.

(1922a) Civilisation and Morale; Industrial Unrest and Nervous Breakdown; the Mind of the Agitator; the Will of the People; Revolution’, Industrial Australian Mining Standard 67(January-February): 16, 59-60, 63, 111, 263.

(1922b) Psychology and Religion, Melbourne: Macmillan.

(1933) The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, New York: Macmillan.

(1945) The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.

(1947a) The Political Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.

(1947b) Some Notes on the Psychology of Pierre Janet, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mayo, E. and Booth, A. (1916) Ring Down the Curtain’, in M.C. Galway (ed.), Lady Galway’s Belgium Book, Adelaide: Hussey and Gillingham, 40-48.

Roethlisberger, F.J. (1977) The Elusive Phenomena, Boston: Division of Research, Harvard School of Business Administration.

Roethlisberger, F.J. and Dickson, W.J. (1939) Management and the Worker, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Trahair, R.C.S. (1981) Early Contributions to the Political Psychology of Elton Mayo’, in J. Walter (ed.), Reading Life Histories: Griffith Papers on Biography, Canberra: Australian University Press, 56-69.

(1982) Elton Mayo and the Political Psychology of Harold D. Lasswell’, Political Psychology 3: 170-88.

(1984a) The Humanist Temper: The Life and Work of Elton Mayo, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

(1984b) The Life and Work of Elton Mayo’, in B.J. Fallon, H.P. Pfister and J. Brebner (eds), Advances in Industrial Organizational Psychology, Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers, 1-9.

Whitehead, T.N. (1938) The Industrial Worker: A Statistical Study of Human Relations in a Group of Manual Workers, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2 vols.

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