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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: The Human Relations School of Management

June 24, 2015

The purpose in exploring various management approaches on this blog is not to find the one most akin to Christianity, but to surface the manner in which the church has been shaped by these models. And then, to explore organizing in ways that manifest the Gospel within the church’s concrete circumstances.

An organization is not simply a physical plant or its equipment. It is not an array of positions, nor a collection of persons who fill those positions. It is not a sequence of work tasks or technical operations. It is all of these things, to be sure, but it is fundamentally something more. The basic building block of the organization is the face-to-face group.1

These words indicate the movement of organizational theory and practice from the classical management approach to the human relations approach. Utilizing significant new developments in the social and behavioral sciences, the discussion shifted from mechanistic engineering techniques to social-psychological concepts; from a focus on technology to a focus on human resources.

This shift was dramatically illustrated by Douglas McGregor in The Human Side of Enterprise (written in 1954 and still in print). Challenging the understanding of human motivation and behavior assumed by prevailing management practices (Theory X), he advocated an alternative (Theory Y). Theory X assumes that most people are lazy, irresponsible, passive, dependent, and must have their work broken into tiny pieces, tightly controlled, and supervised lest they make a mess of things. By contrast, Theory Y assumes that most people will take responsibility, care about their jobs, wish to grow and achieve, and, if given a chance, do excellent work.2 This post explores the contribution of the human relations school of management which, drawing upon democratic principles and a belief in human potential, attempted to envision a comprehensive organization development and information system that embodies McGregor’s Theory Y.

A Word of Caution:

Some persons have speculated that Theory Y correlates with the Christian understanding of redeemed humanity. Indeed, McGregor’s concern was not primarily with increased productivity, but with the expression of dignity, meaning, and community within the workplace. Agreeing with these fundamental commitments, many church leaders have embraced his perspective. Yet the church should not move too quickly to adopt a particular organizational model—even one based in Theory Y. The presuppositions, intentions, and implications of these models may not be in accord with the theological nature and mission of the Christian church. The purpose in exploring the various management approaches is not to find the one most akin to Christianity, but to surface the manner in which the church has been shaped by these models—often unintentionally and uncritically. With an increased knowledge of your congregation’s current structure, you and other key leaders can then move to a consideration of how best to organize your church in order to manifest the Gospel within your concrete circumstances, challenges, and opportunities for ministry.

The Human Element.

humanElementDuring the 1920s and 30s, the United States experienced a cultural and social upheaval, not unlike that caused by the Industrial Revolution. People were moving to the cities, they had more money, women were voting, and unions were organized. Prior to the stock market collapse of 1929, there was a genuine sense of optimism. Attention turned to the human element in the workplace: human motivation, creativity, and satisfaction. “Job enrichment, combined with a more participative, democratic, and employee-centered style of leadership, arose as an alternative to the excessively narrow, authoritarian, and dehumanizing work orientation generated by classical management theory.”3

The Hawthorne Studies.

While classical management was called “scientific” because it depended upon experts, it was not based upon empirical research, but upon unsystematic and untested concepts of how work should be structured. The 1920s field research studies at the Hawthorne Electrical Plant in Chicago represent a turning point. Designed to identify factors that diminished worker productivity, it was initially believed that physical surroundings had an impact. As the studies progressed, the researchers discovered that variations in performance could neither be explained by cognitive or physical factors nor by wage incentives or authority.

peopleSkillsThe major findings of the Hawthorne studies were: (1) The level of production is set by social norms, not by physiological capacities. (2) Non-economic rewards and sanctions significantly affect the behavior of workers. (3) Often workers do not act or react as individuals but as members of groups. (4) Leadership is important for setting and implementing group norms. (5) Communication between the ranks, participation in decision making, and democratic leadership are important determinants in worker productivity.4

The Hawthorne studies are famous for identifying the importance of human behavior in the workplace. As a result of these studies, the whole question of work motivation became a burning issue, as did the relations between individuals and groups.5 A new theory of organizations began to emerge, built on the idea that persons operate most effectively when they are treated not as spare parts of a machine, but as responsible, mature, and creative human persons. Managers were challenged to move beyond technical skills to people skills.

Participative Management.

Classical management had “improved productivity by squeezing out of jobs human variability, managerial whim, and personal control, at a time of relatively certain markets, simple technologies, uneducated labor, and capricious management.”6 But the situation after World War II required a very different approach. In a context of fast-changing technologies and unpredictable market pressures, organizations needed to be structured in such a way as to provide workers with a range of skills, flexibility in job design, learning opportunities, social cooperation, and self-control.

organizationalResearchers began studying the behavior and dynamics of work groups. They wanted not simply to describe or understand, but to learn how to change or develop groups. Thus the field of organization development was born. The research of Kurt Lewin and others on leadership and participation discovered a core principle: “We are more likely to modify our own behavior when we participate in problem analysis and solution and are more likely to carry out decisions we have helped make.”7 The workplace was expanded to include the life space of each person. Viewing the organization as a complex social unit, organization development practitioners focused primarily on perceptions, feelings, relationships, attitudes, group norms, and communication skills among people within the organization. Moving away from hierarchical structures, they aimed for “flatter” organizations and more egalitarian relationships.

Overlapping Work Groups.

The human organization is viewed not as a collection of individual persons or individual positions, but as a network of multiple overlapping work groups held together by linking persons. The focus is upon building these groups as cohesive working units: helping them design and organize their work, establish team goals, and implement their plans. Work coordination is accomplished by linking persons who are members simultaneously of two or more groups. Linking persons fulfill five linking functions: (1) information flow; (2) coordinated problem solving; (3) clarifying essential criteria for decisions; (4) providing for reciprocal influence; (5) mobilizing motivational forces. Effective linking persons learn to be multi-directional rather than uni-directional, and are concerned with the whole organization, not just with one part of it.

overlapping_groupsProductive organizations were discovered to have high levels of cooperation, coordination, and mutual concern. The principle of supportive relationships contributes to increased positive motivation: “The leadership and other processes of the organization must be such as to ensure a maximum probability that in all interactions and all relationships with the organization, each member will, in light of his or her background, values, and expectations, view the experience as supportive and one which builds and maintains his or her sense of personal worth and importance.”8 Leaders of work groups, along with their members, must be relatively sensitive people with reasonably accurate insights into the feelings, actions, and behavior of others—they must be supportive.

The Contribution of the Human Relations School.

participateFor the researchers interested in developing the human organization, involving people was not simply a management technique. “It was the bedrock of social learning, requiring goal focus, feedback, leadership, and participation by all the relevant actors.”9 Unfortunately, these new social processes were in many cases “pasted on” existing organizations which had been designed using the machine bureaucracy model. Unwilling to engage in a fundamental reorientation, those higher in the organization often used the techniques of participative management to create a false sense of involvement, thus inappropriately manipulating those lower in rank. The insights of the human relations approach continue to challenge organizations critically to examine their structure and intentionally to equip managers and employees with genuine group skills.

The human relations orientation emphasizes the social process: the role of participation, communication, and supportiveness. In comparison to classical management, this approach works from a very different set of assumptions: (1) people want to work and produce quality products; (2) through participation, people’s energies can be enlisted in service of organizational goals; and (3) there is potential power in groups or teams of people working together collaboratively.10 Its major contribution is the humanizing of the workplace through the recognition of how the social needs and personal satisfactions of persons influence their commitment, cooperation, effort, and overall contribution.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How did the human relations approach differ from the classical management approach?
  2. What was learned through the Hawthorne Studies?
  3. Identify the work groups in your congregation. How are they related to one another?
  4. Why is the principle of supportive relationships important?
  5. In what ways is your congregation structured to facilitate participation, communication, and supportiveness?
  6. What can be learned from the Human Relations School about church organizational life and practice?

 David G. Bowers, Systems of Organization: Management of the Human Resource (The University of Michigan Press, 1976), pp.2-3.

 Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning, and Community (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987), p. 5.

 Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (Sage Publications, 1986), p. 42.

 Amitai Etzioni, Modern Organizations (Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 34-38.

 Morgan, Images of Organization, p. 41.

 Weisbord, Productive Workplaces, p. 155.

 Ibid., p. 89.

 Rensis Likert, New Patterns of Management (McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 103.

 Weisbord, Productive Workplaces, p. 94.

10  David A. Nadler, Marc S. Gerstein, Robert B. Shaw and Associates, Organizational Architecture: Designs for Changing Organizations (Jossey-Bass, 1992), p. 114.




Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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