The Hawthorne effect
Nov 3rd 2008
The Hawthorne effect is named after what was one of the most famous experiments (or, more accurately, series of experiments) in industrial history. It marked a sea change in thinking about work and productivity. Previous studies, in particular Frederick Taylor’s influential ideas, had focused on the individual and on ways in which an individual’s performance could be improved. Hawthorne set the individual in a social context, establishing that the performance of employees is influenced by their surroundings and by the people that they are working with as much as by their own innate abilities.
The experiments took place at Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They were conducted for the most part under the supervision of Elton Mayo, an Australian-born sociologist who eventually became a professor of industrial research at Harvard.
The original purpose of the experiments was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity. Two groups of workers in the Hawthorne factory were used as guinea pigs. One day the lighting in the work area for one group was improved dramatically while the other group’s lighting remained unchanged. The researchers were surprised to find that the productivity of the more highly illuminated workers increased much more than that of the control group.
The employees’ working conditions were changed in other ways too (their working hours, rest breaks and so on), and in all cases their productivity improved when a change was made. Indeed, their productivity even improved when the lights were dimmed again. By the time everything had been returned to the way it was before the changes had begun, productivity at the factory was at its highest level. Absenteeism had plummeted.
The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers’ productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place.
A crucial element in Mayo’s findings was the effect that working in groups had on the individual. At one time he wrote:
The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.
Later in life he added:
The working group as a whole actually determined the output of individual workers by reference to a standard that represented the group conception (rather than management’s) of a fair day’s work. This standard was rarely, if ever, in accord with the standards of the efficiency engineers.
Fritz Roethlisberger, a leading member of the research team, wrote:
The Hawthorne researchers became more and more interested in the informal employee groups, which tend to form within the formal organisation of the company, and which are not likely to be represented in the organisation chart. They became interested in the beliefs and creeds which have the effect of making each individual feel an integral part of the group.
Gillespie, G., “Manufacturing Knowledge, A History of the Hawthorne Experiments”, Cambridge University Press, 1991
Mayo, E., “The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation”, Macmillan, 1933; 2nd edn Harvard University, 1946
Mayo, E., “The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation”, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949; later edn with appendix, 1975
Roethlisberger, F.J. and Dickson, W.J., “Management and the Worker: An Account of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago”, Harvard University Press, 1939