Tag Archives: Roethlisberger

87 – The Elusive phenomena (Roethlisberger, 1977)

Book Summary (main chapters)
“The Elusive Phenomena” by F.J. Roethlisberger (1977)

“The Elusive Phenomena” is the intellectual autobiographical account of the author’s work in the field of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School.

Born in New York in 1898 and son of Swiss immigrants, the author was soon attracted by science and studied mathematics and physical science at Columbia and at the MIT, where he was deceived by the way ‘scientific management’ was taught. His passion for knowledge and certainty pushed him to join Prof. Mayo at Harvard (1927) where he became a phenomenologist.

At Harvard, he joined the committee on Industrial Physiology and counselling students, where he observed the uniformities, basis of the ‘life space’: (1) Preoccupation and Attention, (2) The Form of Thinking: tending to treat the world of fact simple and to complicate its thinking of it, creating False Dichotomies, (3) Preoccupations and Personal History, (4) Preoccupations and the Future and (5) The Dyatic Relation. He was more interested in scientific knowledge and epistemology (what makes knowledge knowledge) than in metaphysics (real) or ethics (good) or aesthetics (beautiful), considering notion of truth as consistent, correspondent to the phenomena and convenient and useful.

Through the Hawthorne researches, Roethlisberger studied the social space, the interactions between workers and their productivity, satisfaction and motivation. In his best-seller book ‘Management and the Worker’ the author explains ‘The Hawthorne effect’ that shows the influence of the experiment itself and the influence of the difference of behavior of the supervisors.

Under the influence of the ‘triumvirate’ Mayo, Henderson (researcher in chemistry and follower of sociologist Pareto) and Donham (Dean of Harvard BS), the author became a concrete sociologist, observing interactions between persons, involving feelings. Agreeing with Henderson, both theory and practice were necessary. 1) The need of a conceptual scheme for purposes of investigation; 2) A matter of convenience and utility and not of truth or falsity; 3) A way of thinking to be practiced, 4) to be pratices in relation to a class of phenomena; 5) To be used so long as it remained useful; 6) Be prepared to a more useful way of thinking. At that time, he was also interested in general semantics taught by Alfred Korzybski.

Roethlisberger did research in, among others, General Motors, the Government and Macy’s. There he studied the social structure of the organization and the salesclerk-customer relation (the motivation and cooperation he observed were ignored by the scientific management). His goal was to analyze Society and Organisation by studying the basic social processes.

In 1942, Pearl Harbor attack and some colleagues’’ death or retirement pushed Roehlisberger to a nervous breakdown. He joined a farm family to recover. There he found a social behavior laboratory in an organisation without standards, principles of therapy or leadership, only uniformities in the processes of individual growth and learning, and individual and group cooperation.

In his early teaching years, he taught the War Industry Retraining Program where his goal was “not to make persons into better executives but instead to make executives into better persons”. He taught an MBA course: “Administrative Practices” about motivation, productivity and satisfaction of people. In 1946 was a turning point in the development of social science.

At Harvard, the author taught according to the Case Method, a HBS teaching and research method. Roethlisberger lists the commonly agreed objectives of this method but also shows its limitations (rationale opposed to theory, exclusively economic facts, reinforcing responsible behavior and a ‘perfect’ solution) and denounces the ‘blind spots’ (social interactions, social organization, illogical conflicts, etc) and shows the influence of assumptions and feelings in perceptions and finally in actions.

In the early 50’s, Roethlisberger was involved in the Human Relations Clinic, a program addressed to practitioners that had to obtain the understanding and cooperation of others to get their own job done and had to act as multipliers of competence in matters of human relations. These skills were improved by a clinical method studying extrinsic and intrinsic aspects (a diagnostic or research, a counselling, a membership, a leadership and a personal context) to reach a better knowledge of oneself.
At Bethel, a summer training center, he was a trainer and a trainee. There he learned that if the more inefficiently the members of a group carried out a task, the better they were able to examine their interpersonal relations and that the here-and-now most appropriate member that met the needs of the group became at that time its leader.
By 1954, Roethlisberger felt that his work was not getting further.

Between 1942 and 1954, Roethlisberger did Human Relations research preparing teaching cases. These cases were descriptions of actual concrete happenings with a clinical orientation (not solely with economical and objective data), giving importance to soft as well as hard data (that can be measured and quantified) to make it more understandable.
Together with George Homans, Abe Zaleznik and Roland Christensen, Roethlisberger did a prediction study; to see if the clinically knowledge could be also proved analytically. This study showed that Homans’ theory of distributive justice could not be explained by the hard data but only considering the soft data.

A skill is a concrete behavior, either physical or social, involves concrete operations, results and outcomes. Instead of a technique, it is a way of learning with 3 characteristic: 1) There is a balanced development between the outward and the inward aspects; 2) the skill improves in time; 3) it develops through attention. The person with the skill is action-oriented, not knowledge oriented, does not have a notion of how things should be or a special interest in verbalizing, is intuitive, with no distinction between theory and practice. Social skill viewed as a technique could arouse ethic issues. Social skill is an ever-improving capacity to communicate feelings to each other to promote better understanding between them and to a better participation in a common task. Social skill is not a verbal skill. Skill is practice. The author considers himself as a phenomenologist. Natural social phenomena are men’s interaction with their associated sentiments and feelings. Paradoxally social knowledge impedes to develop social skill.

The author affirms that the knowledge seeker searches for a class of phenomena (taxonomy) to make further observations and generalizations.
The concept of equilibrium may be applied to a system and its environment, the relations among the components of the internal system or relations between the internal and external system. The distinction between the external system (the organisation where activities are differentiated) and internal system (the diffentiated individuals) have mutual dependent consequences. A group needs both roles but they might have different goals. The needs of individuals and groups don’t have to be confused; they need to be differentiated before being related and to search for equilibrium. These ‘open’ or ‘dynamic’ systems (with external and internal systems and relations that vary in time) are difficult to conceptualize.

Roethlisberger wanted to go further in his research, from a limited clinical to a more scientific analytical knowledge but the absence of a ‘shared paradigm’ among researchers made impossible to build more knowledge based on a common ground. The author differentiates different types of knowledge makers: 1) conceptual logicians; 2) clinicians; 3) correlation seekers and testers; 4) hypotheses seekers and testers (methodologists); 5) general-proposition makers; 6) model makers or model builders

(See table p.393 about Skill, clinical knowledge and analytical knowledge, its characteristics, methods and products.

Roethlisberger regrets the lack of shared skill, conceptual scheme, paradigm among researchers to the elusive phenomena of human behavior in organizations.


ELUSIVE: tending to elude: as
a : tending to evade grasp or pursuit
b : hard to comprehend or define
c : hard to isolate or identify

(Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/elusive )

PHENOMENON in Greek means “that which reveals itself”