An Introduction to Classical Management Theory


Classical management theory was developed during the Industrial Revolution when new problems related to the factory system began to appear. It was comprised of scientific, bureaucratic and administrative management theories. This article provides an overview of classical management approaches to help modern leaders learn from foundational management principles.

What Is Classical Management Theory?

Classical management theory refers to the set of management approaches established from the late 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th century aimed at improving productivity and efficiency.

Classical theory emphasized structure, discipline, order and established formal processes for quality control, supervision, planning and decision-making. It took a rational, scientific approach to managing organizations and workers.

Key Tenets of Classical Management Theories

There were three major branches of classical management theory:

Scientific Management Theory

Scientific management theory was developed by Frederick Taylor in the late 1800s. He studied worker productivity and focused on applying scientific analysis and methods to optimize workflow processes. Key principles of Taylor’s scientific management theory include:

  • Time and motion studies – Analyzing work tasks and processes to improve efficiency
  • Standardization – Creating operating procedures and policies to increase productivity
  • Specialization – Breaking down jobs into smaller, specialized tasks
  • Incentive pay – Implementing pay-for-performance rewards to motivate workers

Taylor’s methods led to huge productivity gains but lacked human consideration.

Administrative Management Theory

Henri Fayol pioneered administrative management theory which focused on improving overall organizational efficiency. Fayol emphasized the following principles:

  • Unity of command and direction – Each worker has one supervisor and set of objectives
  • Scalar chain – A clear hierarchy of reporting relationships
  • Order – The right balance between flexibility and standardization
  • Equity – Fair treatment of all employees
  • Division of work and specialization – Breaking down jobs into specialized tasks
  • Authority and responsibility – Balancing authority granted with responsibility assigned

Bureaucratic Management Theory

Max Weber promoted bureaucratic management characterized by strict hierarchies, formalized procedures and control-oriented cultures. Key elements of bureaucratic theory include:

  • Fixed division of labor – Highly specialized roles and responsibilities
  • Hierarchy – Clear reporting structures and hierarchies
  • Formal selection – Recruitment and promotion based on ability rather than favoritism
  • Career orientation – Salaried roles where long-term employment is expected
  • Impersonality – Making decisions based on policies and rules rather than personal interests

Classical Contributions and Criticisms

Classical management theories helped establish standard workflows and hierarchical structures. However, they faced criticisms for being too rigid and lacking human consideration in the workplace. Classical theories formed the basis for modern management approaches that aim to strike the right balance between efficiencies and humanity.

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