Frederick Taylor: Engineer Turned Psychologist

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Engineering and psychology? How in the world is there any overlap between the two? For mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) turned industrial psychologist, the answer lied in worker motivation.

Taylor believed that all workers were motivated by their wages and monetary gain. Interestingly, in 1881, he won the tournament in doubles tennis at the U.S. National Championship (now “Open”).

He conducted a study which showed that, with planned breaks in-between work, employees were more productive. His umbrella term for thinking is referred to as Taylorism.

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first. This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed.

On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systematic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before.”

Although some of his case studies were overly controversial back in his day (even more so now), his contributions to the field of industrial-organizational (IO) psychology are still widely studied (and critiqued) today. Let’s take a look at how Frederick Taylor has a field under his own name—Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management

Taylor coined the term ‘scientific management,’ which is in modern-day lingo industrial-organizational psychology. He deemed it as the practice that creates more efficient organizations through increasing employees’ efficiency.

In 1911, he published The Principles of Scientific Mangement, which explained his work processes in greater detail. The four principles of scientific management are:

  1. Splitting work between workers and manager
  2. Hiring workers based on their skills
  3. Collecting information for workplace rules
  4. Monitoring work performance for efficiency

Key concepts from Taylor’s psychology:

  • Time studies to improve work processes
  • Soldiering (standardization)
  • Cost accounting
  • Pay for performance or piece
  • Management functions: planning, organizing, leading, monitoring

What were Taylor’s motives for this extreme efficiency? He looked towards a future of less waste and poverty, which he regarded to be for the “greater good” of the worker. How? By using quantitative methods like measuring the amount of time spent or number of motions used.

With task-based labor, he encouraged a skillful teacher to demonstrate how to perform a task properly to a worker who required further instructions. Instead of upright punishment, he pointed workers in the direction of guidance first.

This shaped the world of human resources to reinforce the importance of positive feedback loops. Frederick Taylor believed that ommunication is key to a healthy workplace culture.

IO Psychology Case Studies

When did Taylor hit a home run in the field of IO psychology? His methods as a manager supposedly acheived a 200% increase within two years (April 1898-1901), when his employees saw a 50% increase in wages at Bethlehem Steel. This equated to a whopping $75,000-$80,000 in savings for his company.

During this time, he worked with Maunsel White to reimagine cutting tool alloys to a new steel that allowed for high-speed manufacturing due to its durability at high temperatures. Their creation became patented, then standardized. The men won the gold medal in 1900 at the Paris Exposition for their outstanding contributions.

In pig-iron handling, Taylor wanted to reduce the cost of handling iron, which was estimated at $0.072 back then. His 75 handlers worked with 12 and a half tons per person, per day. To motivate his best employees to work harder, he bumped up the pay from $1.15 to $1.85 per day, and appointed supervisors to oversee all workers.

What were the results of the pig-iron experiment? The costs of iron handling was reduced from $0.072 to $0.036, which had saved the company $36,500. This was Taylor’s usage of task work; a pay-per-piece standard rather than an hourly wage. This payment structure is seen in many project-based jobs, especially with freelancers and contractors.

His findings predictably created an uproar within unions, social critics, and students as to the dehumanization of the human worker. Taylor’s friends claimed him to be “tactless” and “independent,” which indicated he was unfit for collaborative environments. His blunt communication style and drive led him to become a consultant in management.

Final Thoughts on Frederick Taylor’s Psychology

At the end of his career, Taylor had 40 patents to his name. He prized efficiency over all, which would in turn increase profits for companies. He found that most workers are motivated by their salaries and will happily put in extra effort for a raise.

During his latter years, he taught as a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His incentive wage plans garnered popularity in Europe (aside from Britain), Russia, and Japan.

Today, IO psychology sees many more factors which contribute to healthy work. Work-life boundaries, mental health support, and frequent feedback to supervisors help shape the future of work, as it becomes increasingly remote.

Employees are recognized as much more than a means to an end, as companies must oblige to labor laws and retain a sense of moral responsibility. Sometimes, that looks like giving deserving raises and more time off—we’re human after all.


Blake, Anne & Moseley, James. (2010). One hundred years after The Principles of Scientific Management: Frederick Taylor’s life and impact on the field of human performance technology. Performance Improvement. 49. 27-34. 10.1002/pfi.20141.

Blake, Anne & Moseley, James. (2011). Frederick Winslow Taylor: One Hundred Years of Managerial Insight. The International Journal of Management. 28. 346-353.

Kanigel, R. (2005). The one best way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Schachter, Hindy. (2010). The role played by Frederick Taylor in the rise of the academic management fields. Journal of Management History. 16. 437-448.

Taylor, F. W. (1911). Principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Wrege, C. D., & Hodgetts, R. M. (2000). Frederick W. Taylor’s 1899 pig iron observations: Examining fact, fiction, and lessons for the new millennium. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 1283-1291.

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