14 julio, 2024

Elton Mayo: biography, contributions and works

elton mayo (1880-1949) was an Australian psychologist, professor, and researcher whose legacy is recognized for his contributions to the field of industrial sociology in the United States in the first half of the 20th century.

Mayo carried out research in different American factories to understand the way in which social relations determine the productivity of companies. Thanks to these studies, he developed theories about labor interactions that are still valid to this day.

One of Mayo’s main contributions consisted of the emphasis on the emotional needs of employees to increase productivity. This psychologist promoted the idea that good labor relations are more motivating than economic incentives.




George Elton Mayo was born in Adelaide, Australia, on December 26, 1880. He was the son of George Gibbes Mayo (1845–1921), a civil engineer, and Henrietta Mary Mayo (1852–1930), a marriage that produced six other children.

In turn, Elton was the grandson of the prestigious doctor George Mayo (1807-1894) and Colonel William Light (1786-1839), surveyor of the British army and designer of the city of Adelaide.

Therefore, Elton was born into a well-to-do and reputed family. Proof of this is that his sister Helen Mayo (1878–1967) was a medical doctor and his brother Herbet (1885–1972), a Supreme Court judge.


He studied Philosophy at the University of Adelaide and after graduation was appointed Professor at the University of Queensland.

In 1923 he resigned from the University of Queensland to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania where he continued his research in various textile companies. In these studies, he drew attention to the importance of organizational sociology and psychology in work environments.

In 1926 he transferred to the Harvard Business School. It was there that he carried out his most important study: the Hawthorne investigation that began in 1927 and lasted for more than 5 years.

After World War II he moved to England where his wife and daughters lived. There he devoted himself to helping British industry recover after the war, until his death in 1947.

The Hawthorne Inquiry

In 1927, Mayo began a pioneering socioeconomic experiment in the field of industrial research. This study, known as the Hawthorne Investigation, takes its name from the Hawthorne Electric Company, where it was conducted.

This research consisted of subjecting workers to a series of changes in their schedules, wages, breaks, lighting conditions, and degrees of supervision. The objective of these observations was to determine what would be the most favorable conditions for productivity.

Initially it was thought that economic stimuli would increase the efficiency of employees. However, the results were surprising: the cause of the increase in productivity was due to the extra attention that was being paid to them.

The results of this project were published in 1939 by associate researchers FJ Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson, in the book Management and the Worker.

The social problems of industrialized civilization

In 1933 Mayo published the book The human problems of an industrial civilizationwhich is still considered his most important work. In its pages he expounded the theory that human relations in the workplace were creating a social problem in modern civilization.

Mayo claimed that industrialization accelerated production and promoted economic growth. But instead it had not contributed to improving people’s living conditions and it was urgent that they also improve.

In addition, he presented a clear political position stating that the existing tension between employers and workers could not be resolved with socialism.

Instead, he thought that psychology was the only tool that could help to understand and solve this problem.

The contributions of Elton Mayo

Mayo’s main contribution consisted in demonstrating the importance of social relationships within work environments. Over time his theories were reassessed and questioned, but they remain an important foundation for studies of industrial relations.

The Hawthorne Effect

During his research at Hawthorne, Mayo discovered what he would call the «Hawthorne Effect.» This refers to the increase in the productivity of workers when they perceive that they are being studied.

Mayo found that productivity increased even when working conditions were less favorable. Reviewing the variables, he discovered that this was due to the care they were receiving.

This is how he established the theory that workers were more productive to the extent that they were more observed.

The social dimension of the industry

According to Mayo, the understanding of social problems is as necessary as the understanding of material problems. This was a fundamental contribution at the beginning of the 20th century, when the efforts of science were focused on the development of industry.

For this theorist, economic incentives were important to motivate employees, but the worker’s relationship with his work environment is more important. A good work environment can be more motivating than good hiring conditions.

In addition, it affirmed that workers cannot be treated in isolation but must be analyzed as members of a group. The social norms of the groups within the work environments are decisive in the productivity of a company.

For example, an employee who produces above average often loses the affection of his colleagues. Due to phenomena like this, it is necessary to understand how the team members relate to each other in order to propose really effective motivation strategies.

For this reason, Mayo proposes that managers become aware of their relationships with workers. A greater attention to their social expectations, as well as a more intense interaction, implies an increase in motivation and an increase in productivity.

The foundations of new disciplines

According to Mayo’s theories, knowing the capabilities of a worker is not enough to predict their productivity within the company.

According to him, the skills can give an idea of ​​the physical and mental potential of the employee. However, efficiency can also be determined by their social relationships within the workplace.

The above statements inspired numerous investigations and laid the foundation for the development of fields such as industrial sociology and organizational psychology. That is why, despite criticism and questioning, Elton Mayo’s legacy continues to this day.

published works

Some of Mayo’s writings have been published after his death. Some of the most successful publications have been:

–Psychology of Pierre Janet, London: Greenwood Press (1972)

–The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (2003)

–Critical Evaluations in Business and Management (2004)

–The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (2007).


British Library. (SF). Elton Mayo. Retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/people/elton-mayo
New World Encyclopedia. (2014). Elton Mayo. Retrieved from: newworldencyclopedia.org.
revolvy. (SF) Elton Mayo. Recovered from: revolvy.com.
The Economist. (2009). Elton Mayo: economist.com.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017). Elton Mayo. Retrieved from: britannica.com.

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