Human Relations Movement

Viewing the Hawthorne Studies as the linchpin that connected scientific management to new thinking and practice, the human relations movement is the result. This entry approaches the human relations movement from three vantage points:

  1. Genesis and growth of the movement
  2. Key concepts and practices of the human relations movement
  3. Role of the movement in shaping the history and trajectory of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology

References are provided at the end of this entry. The entry clarifies that researching investigators, practicing consultants, and working managers contributed to the human relations movement.

Human Relations Movement Genesis and Growth

Two early figures, related through the Hawthorne Studies and Harvard Business School, were Fritz J. Roethlisberger and G. Elton Mayo. Roethlisberger was a Harvard Business School professor for 40 years; Mayo was a Harvard professor with training in psychopathology. The human relations movement emerged through their writings, in opposition to scientific management. The various members of the movement, without excessive formal identification, promulgated an attitude toward organizations that emphasized persons, groups, and relationships.

The human relations movement began with impetus from the findings of the Hawthorne Studies that both group norms and worker attitudes are important and account for variance that is left unaccounted for by scientific management and personnel selection. The movement began during the period spanning the irrational zest of the late 1920s and the start of the Great Depression. The shift was documented in the titles of two books by Morris Viteles. Specifically, the revision of Industrial Psychology (1932) illustrated the evolution of the field when it appeared as Motivation and Morale in Industry (1953). Even as industrial psychologists continued to develop personnel testing techniques, documented by Harold Burtt in 1926 and 1929 and then by Morris Viteles in the magisterial Industrial Psychology, the roots of organizational psychology were being cultivated in the study of attitudes and groups. Another individual who made the transition to a focus on job attitudes and mental health of the worker as well as industrial conflict, from an early focus on testing aspects of industrial psychology, was Arthur Kornhauser. Several individuals went undercover to write popular accounts of how workers thought and behaved. Satisfaction became an important outcome for the human relations movement. Researchers developed job satisfaction surveys following unobtrusive investigations during the 1920s (for example, Whiting Williams, Mainsprings of Men), and the Hawthorne researches provided guidance on personnel interviewing and counseling. Context and environment were important to workers, and thus to management, and eventually to I/O psychologists.

Two other individuals were important in advancing models of cooperation, paired with productive conflict, as a preferred organization for business firms. Mary Parker Follett, trained in political science, presented analyses of power relationships within organizations that have been rediscovered by the I/O field. Chester Barnard, a CEO of New Jersey Bell Telephone who was also influenced by Harvard Business School faculty, wrote about management in Functions of the Executive (1938). He discussed the directives of supervisors and the varying acceptance by subordinates. Chester Barnard developed concepts of strategic planning and the acceptance theory of authority. Strategic planning is the formulation of major plans or strategies, which guide the organization in pursuit of major objectives. Barnard believed that the prime functions of executives were to establish effective communication systems, hire and retain effective personnel, and motivate personnel. These functions vary from standard treatments in their inclusion of communication systems as an important facet of the executive position.

Moving on through the interval between 1950 and 1970, Douglas McGregor and Rensis Likert stand out among others in terms of their influence on the human relations movement. McGregor proposed theory X and theory Y views of workers held by managers at multiple levels of organizations from supervisors to executives. Simplifying, theory X pertains to a scientific management perspective, whereas theory Y pertains to a human relations perspective. It is of interest that many organizations and managers continue with theory X perspectives and may suggest a contingency interpretation. Rensis Likert influenced them in several ways: They included his early work on scaling and later work on conducting surveys to support World War II efforts, as well as his role in founding the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan. Likert identified systems of exploitive, benevolent, consultative, and participative management and worked with colleagues at the ISR to develop diagnostic tools and planned change interventions. A major vector of influence was Kurt Lewin. The influence was transmitted through Lewin’s emphasis on groups and life spaces but perhaps to a greater extent through his training of many social psychologists who studied within organizations.

Key Concepts and Practices of the Human Relations Movement

The human relations movement is known neither as a formal school nor for a single set of practices, whether considering the System 1-4 framework of Rensis

Likert or the acceptance theory of management by Chester Barnard. Assessing, understanding, and working with employee attitudes were its hallmarks, however, and contributed to the formation of organizational psychology, as noted by Harold Leavitt. Training for supervisors in human relations was also prominent during the interval between 1940 and 1966, as indicated by a search of the historical research database. The effectiveness data were of course meager. The emphasis of the human relations movement on the study of groups and organizations meant that theory and research moved away from a myopic preoccupation with the individual level of analysis to a more integrative conception of micro-, meso-, and macro influences and consequences of behavior.

Role of the Human Relations Movement

Arthur Bedaeian and Daniel Wren, based on an order of merit ranking procedure, placed multiple books from the human relations movement in their list of the top 20 books in management during the 20th century. Two important effects of the human relations movement were the development of the organizational branch of I/O psychology (and organizational science, broadly defined) and the emergence of professional development for managers. The organizational branch of I/O psychology is concerned with groups and norms, attitudes, motivations, interests and values, and roles. Remembering ability in general or training to influence worker capabilities, the human relations movement enhanced our suite of potential causes of observed behavior and advanced job design and redesign as another class of action levers. It also demonstrated application links with other areas of psychology, for example using the scaling procedures of Thurstone and of Likert to measure job attitudes. Systematic studies of and interventions around labor-management relations were another offshoot of this movement seen in organizational psychology, as are current concerns with forms of job affect and withdrawal and interventions to influence them. Professional development for managers, whether T-group work at the National Training Laboratories (NTL) or role-playing of interviewing and communications with subordinates or participation in large-scale networked simulations, is a large and booming business. All these tendrils, and more, are offshoots of the human relations movement.


  1. Barkin, S. (1957). Human relations in the trade unions. In C. M. Arensberg, S. Barkins, W. E. Chalmers, H. L. Wilensky, J. C. Worthy, & B. D. Dennis (Eds.), Research in industrial human relations (pp. 192-213). New York: Harper.
  2. Barnard, C. (1938). The functions of the executive.bCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Kornhauser, A. W. (1965). Mental health of the industrial worker. New York: Wiley.
  4. Leavitt, H. J. (1961). Toward organizational psychology. In B. von Haller Gilmer (Ed.), Walter Van Dyke Bingham memorial program(pp. 23-30). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Institute of Technology.
  5. Likert, R. (1961). New patterns of management. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  6. McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  7. Viteles, M. (1953). Motivation and morale in industry. New York: Norton.