How does Douglas McGregor’s approach of human relations change the perspective on work?

2010/01/21 § 1 Comment


After the Hawthorne experiments in connection with Elton Mayo, and the subsequent behavioral research of the 1930s and 1940s, the human relations approach to management was developed .

While Henri Fayol, and even more so Fredrick Taylor , focused on principles of management, scientific determination of the most efficient work routines and training, and worker compensation , the human relations approach emphasizes behavioral issues such as job satisfaction, group behavior, and leadership style.

The end goal for management stayed the same with the new considerations, i.e. increased productivity, however, the new aspect was that satisfied workers would be more productive compared with workers who felt antagonized by the companies they worked for.

McGregor described his ideas in his article “The Human Side of Enterprise” and the book of the same name . McGregor thereby introduced a humanistic approach to the business perspective. He describes in theory Y that the employees should be thought of as ambitious and self-motivated and able to exercise self-control. He emphasized a trust in the employee’s abilities that escaped management thought before McGregor.

In contrast to Taylor’s approach to prevent “soldiering” with a whole range of technical strategies, the humanist approach wanted to prevent the development of soldiering by taking away the fundamental causes for soldiering, namely injustice, and indifference for the psychological well-being of the employee.

In the development leading up to this event, Elton Mayo and the Hawthorne experiments can be seen as an early realization of the effect of human relations. As Kyle Bruce, a critique of Mayo observes it, some argue that Mayo’s role may have been mainly one of public relations, in order to popularize the observations of his experiments .

Hence, following from this argument, Mayo’s approach is more descriptive in nature. McGregor on the other hand did not merely describe the effects of human relations, but discussed them with the objective in mind to change the way we view management.

It is interesting to see why McGregor may have developed his views. He explains: “I believed, for example, that a leader -could operate successfully as a kind of adviser to his organization. I thought I could avoid being a “boss.” Consequently, I suspect, I hoped to duck the unpleasant necessity of making difficult decisions, of taking the responsibility of one course of action, among many uncertain alternatives, of making mistakes and taking the consequences.”

He continues: “I thought that maybe I could operate so that everyone would like me – that “good human relations” would eliminate all discord and disagreement. I couldn’t have been more wrong. … I finally began to realize that a leader can not avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid responsibility for what happens to his organization.””

In this description McGregor admits that a personal dislike of his is to be “bossy” while he also admits to his need to be thought of as a pleasant person. He goes on describing how an individual in a management situation cannot entirely avoid some disagreement and hence discord.

Ultimately, it appears that McGregor attempts to pacify these opposing emotions with each other in his theoretical discussions of management and the human element in his theory X and theory Y. In doing so he inspired others who came after him as well as contemporaries to follow in his theoretical footsteps .

Theory Y is seen as a predecessor to the value based leadership . He subsequently influenced for instance Chris Argyris to built on his ideas. Argyris developed the idea that while McGregor saw theory X and Y merely as attitudes, not management styles, one could argue that these attitudes in reality do lead to a certain management styles .

Another example of McGregors influence on subsequent theoreticians of management is Theory Z. Theory Z is a description of the humanistic organizations as analyzed by Douglas McGregor, amongst others. Theory Z, similarly to Theory Y, represents a humanistic approach to management. It is partially based on Japanese management principle, and a hybrid management approach combining Japanese management philosophies with US-American culture .

From these examples we see that McGregor’s work has had a significant impact on management thought and practice. Apparently, McGregor’s concepts are included in the absolute majority of textbooks on basic ideas of management. And it is fair to say McGregor’s ideas have had tremendous influence on the study of management .

In explaining why McGregors work changes the perspective of work in the enterprise, one has to look into the reason for the psychological appeal of his ideas. The workplace of the early 21st century has an emphasis on self-managed work teams and other forms of worker involvement programs. This is largely consistent with the concepts of Theory Y. As evidence of their success in terms of productivity is beginning to accumulate, such approaches will certainly become more widely accepted and distributed.

The appeal of this perspective, on the human factor in the work environment, stems from the fact that it takes the human psyche much more into account, contrary to earlier classical management approaches.

In conclusion, the interpersonal-oriented style, McGregor has contributed to, is concerned with human relationships and it requires an acceptance of the management’s responsibility for the welfare of workers. This certainly is one of the mayor appeals of McGregors ideas to a broader audience, which has become accustomed to view employees not as a burden but as an asset .

It is in stark contrast to the ideas of, for example, Taylor who in the eyes of many critiques neglects the human welfare by claiming that the workers main interest is remuneration . Taylor was probably partially right, but he may have underestimated the effect of the humanistic perspective. A recent KPMG study shows, that financial incentives are the single largest contributor in motivating employees (31%), “showing recognition” (21%) and “seeking employees’ opinion” (14%) are very important contributors too .

McGregor has a part in the achievement that these questions are being researched today. The acquired knowledge about how our psyche functions in a work environment are more readily applied today, largely thanks to McGregor’s work and that of those who built on his ideas. Because of these insights, the way people are being managed has changed today.

Ultimately, McGregor’s theories have contributed to employers recognizing the importance to accommodate people’s psychological needs to a larger extend than previously. Nowadays, many employers have recognized that their success is highly influenced by the motivation of their workforce.

Companies must strive to increase the level of commitment, motivation and job satisfaction among their employees. Hence, it is important to take into account employees’ needs, desires and ambitions and to offer career development opportunities and performance recognition as part of the quality of work agenda.

Concluding, many of these factors have been drawn into the limelight thanks to McGregor’s humanistic approach and his appeal to trust the employees’ abilities, rather than seeing them as an opposing force that has to be tamed.

The reason why McGregor’s work has altered the perspective on work in a sentence is, that he forces us to take into account the human factor in a way, and most of all, to a degree as it has not been done before he developed his theory Y.

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