Democracy or Seduction? The Demonization of Scientific Management and the Deification of Human Relations

Jan 01, 2009 | by
  • Description

The emergence of the Human Relations "School" of management (HRS, hereafter) in interwar America was less a distinct break with Taylorism or Scientific Management (SM, hereafter) than it was a right wing and decidedly undemocratic outgrowth. That many of Taylor's disciples preceded Elton Mayo in analysing "the human factor in industry' is well established in the history of management thought. Likewise, that the Taylorists actively sought to promote greater worker participation in the management process and a greater rapprochement with organised labour in the interwar period is also well documented. Yet the conventional wisdom in the organization studies is that HRS was the intellectual progeny of Mayo and his associates in the Hawthorne Studies and that their concern with human problems in industry was both a reaction against, and solution for the shortcomings of SM. The fundamental question this paper seeks to answer is why the history has been written in this way and how it could be that the participatory nature of Taylorist movement came to be written out of typical accounts. We seek to understand how and why the meta-narrative regarding SM and HRS became the received wisdom and who stood to gain from this establishment of managerial orthodoxy. We seek to understand why it was that Mayo and HRS were deified, whereas Taylor and SM were demonized in the 1930s and beyond. Our central argument is that HRS presented conservative business leaders such as John D. Rockefeller Jr. with a more subtle yet powerful means of resolving conflict and exercising authority in the workplace, one that focused on individuals, their productivity, and on firm performance rather than on collective dealing with employees and so, was more attractive to business leaders of the time than the more democratic approach of progressive figures in the SM movement.