Scientific Management revisited: Did Taylorism fail because of a too positive image of human nature?

Sigmund Wagner‐Tsukamoto (School of Management, KEB, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Publication date: 26 September 2008

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of the paper is to critically question conventional views of the one‐dimensional, mechanistic and negative image of human nature of Scientific Management. Both for worker behavior and for managerial behavior positive aspects of an image of human nature are reconstructed in organizational economic terms.

Design/methodology/approach

Through institutional economic reconstruction, drawing on the methods and concepts of organizational and institutional economics, the portrayal of workers and managers by Scientific Management is critically assessed.

Findings

It is suggested that a conceptual asymmetry exists in Taylor's writings regarding the portrayal of human nature of workers and managers. Whereas for workers a model of self‐interest was applied (through the concepts of “systematic soldering” and “natural soldiering”), Taylor portrayed managers through a positive, behavioral model of human nature that depicted the manager as “heartily cooperative”. The key thesis is that by modeling managers through a rather positive image of human nature Taylor could no longer methodically apply the model of economic man in order to test out and prevent interaction conflict between potentially self‐interested managers and workers.

Research limitations/implications

The paper focused on Scientific Management to advance the thesis that the portrayal of human nature has been ill approached by management and organization theorists who were apparently pioneering an institutional and organizational economics. Future research has to broaden the scope of research to other pioneers in management and organization research, but also to critics in behavioral sciences, such as organization psychology, who may misunderstand how economics approaches the portrayal of human nature, in particular regarding self‐interest.

Practical implications

Taylor's portrayal of managers as naturally good persons, who were not self‐interested, caused implementation conflict and implementation problems for Scientific Management and led to his summoning by the US Congress. By modeling managers as heartily cooperative, Taylor could no longer analyze potentially self‐interested behavior, even opportunistic behavior of managers in their interactions with workers. Scientific Management had thus no remedy to handle “soldiering” of managers. This insight, that managerialism needs to be accounted for in a management theory, has manifold practical implications for management consultancy, management education, and for the practice of management in general. Students and practitioners have to be informed about the necessary and useful role a model of self‐interest (economic man) methodically plays in economic management theory.

Originality/value

The paper reconstructs the portrayal of human nature in early management theory, which seemingly anticipated the advances – and certain pitfalls – of modern institutional economics. The paper unearths, from an economic perspective, conceptual misunderstandings of Taylor regarding his image of human nature of workers and managers.

Keywords

Citation

Wagner‐Tsukamoto, S. (2008), "Scientific Management revisited: Did Taylorism fail because of a too positive image of human nature?", Journal of Management History, Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 348-372. https://doi.org/10.1108/17511340810893108

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Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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