George Elton Mayo (1880-1949)

This article by Helen Bourke, (not produced here), was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

George Elton Mayo

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), a highly regarded social theorist and industrial psychologist, was born on 26th December 1880 in Adelaide, the eldest son of George Gibbes Mayo, draftsman and later civil engineer, and his wife Henrietta Mary, née Donaldson; he was married to Dorothea McConnell on 18 April 1913 in Brisbane, Australia.

He was educated at Queen's School and the Collegiate School of St Peter and also at medical schools in Edinburgh and London, but strangely lost interest in medicine at the University of Adelaide.

Following work which he did in West Africa he returned to London in 1903 and turned his attention to writing articles for magazines and, occasionally teaching English at the Working Men's College.

Back again in Adelaide in 1905 he took a partnership with the printing firm of J. H. Sherring & Co., but went back to the university to study philosophy and psychology in 1907 under Sir William Mitchell, where he won the Roby Fletcher prize in psychology and graduated with honours (B.A., 1910; M.A.) in 1926; in 1911 he was installed as foundation lecturer in mental and moral philosophy at the new University of Queensland and in 1919-23 held the first chair of philosophy there. Known more commonly as Elton Mayo, he was the founder of the Human Relations Movement, and is best known for his research including the Hawthorne Studies, and his book The Social Problems of an Industrialised Civilization (1933).

Elton Mayo became a public figure in Brisbane, lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association and serving on the university's war committee. Influenced mostly by Freud, Jung and Pierre Janet, he studied the nature of nervous breakdown and with a Brisbane physician, Dr T. H. Mathewson, pioneered the psychoanalytic treatment of shell-shock. This led to the publication of his first book, Democracy and Freedom (Melbourne, 1919); others followed viz., The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation (New York, 1933) and The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation (London, 1945). By observing the disturbing level of industrial strife and political conflict in Australia, Mayo was able to formulate inter-dependence between war neurosis and the psychological causes of industrial unrest. He asserted that the worker's morale, or intuitively, mental health, depended on a perception of the social function of his work; he positioned a solution to industrial unrest in sociological research and industrial management rather than in radical politics.

In 1922 Mayo set sail for the United States of America. He acquired a Rockefeller grant which enabled him to investigate the high labour turnover at a textile mill. This pioneering work attracted the attention of the Harvard School of Business Administration where he attained an associate professorship in 1926 and professor of industrial research in 1929; this led to him conducting research into personal and social factors determining work output at the Western Electric Co.'s Chicago plant; these were to become the famous Hawthorne experiments which became pioneering studies in modern social research. Mayo was undoubtedly one of the most influential, if controversial, social scientists of his day.

The research he conducted in the Hawthorne Studies demonstrated the importance and impact of groups in influencing the behaviour of individuals at work. Strangely it was his employees Roethlisberger and Dickinson and not Mayo that carried out the practical studies; however this enabled Mayo to detach from these and assert how managers should, ideally, behave.

Mayo turned his attention to productivity where he established that work satisfaction appeared to depend on an informal social structure within the workgroup, where the normal features of co-operation and improved output were determined due to a 'feeling of importance'. Mayo asserted that financial incentives or physical conditions offered little motivational value; workgroups would form as a natural consequence and often this was to the benefit of the organisation. Mayo asserted that job content and social issues provided the foundation for personal performance. Fundamentally Mayo pointed to an inevitable conflict in organisations between managers 'logic of cost and efficiency' and the employees' 'logic of sentiment'.

Since these studies Mayo has been criticised in three arenas:

Summary of Elton Mayo's beliefs:

  1. Individual workers must been seen as a member of a group and not treated in isolation.
  2. The need to belong to a group was more important to an individual than monetary incentives and good working conditions.
  3. Informal or unofficial groups formed at work have a strong influence on the behaviour of those workers in a group.
  4. Managers must be aware of these 'social needs' (later called Behavioural Science) and cater for them to ensure that employees collaborate with the official organisation rather than work against it.

Further criticisms about Elton Mayo have emerged, particularly in matters of government; in 2003 James Hooper recorded that 'Mayo wrote up his idea of substituting therapy for democracy in a paper entitled 'A New Way of Statecraft'

In 1947 he retired from Harvard and returned to England where he died at Guildford, Surrey, on 1 September 1949; a short man, who smoked excessively, he had suffered from chronic hypertension. His wife and two daughters survived him. The Elton Mayo School of Management in Adelaide was developed as a tribute to him.

Dr Helen Mayo was his sister. His brother Sir Herbert (1885-1972) became a justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia and president of the Law Council of Australia. Another brother, John Christian (1891-1955), was a prominent Adelaide radiotherapist and surgeon and another sister Mary Penelope Mayo, M.A., (1889-1969) was a historian of early Adelaide.