Elton Mayo and The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect - Mayo Studies in Employee Motivation

Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne Studies (also knowns as the Hawthorne Experiments) were conducted from 1927 to 1932 at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago).  This is where Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger examined the impact of work conditions in employee productivity. Elton Mayo started these experiments by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership) and their impact on employee motivation as it applies to productivity.

The Hawthorne Effect

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In essence, the Hawthorne Effect, as it applies to the workplace, can be summarized as "Employees are more productive because the employees know they are being studied." Elton Mayo's experiments showed an increase in worker productivity was produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out, involved, and made to feel important.

Additionally, the act of measurement, itself, impacts the results of the measurement. Just as dipping a thermometer into a vial of liquid can affect the temperature of the liquid being measured, the act of collecting data, where none was collected before creates a situation that didn't exist before, thereby affecting the results.

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The Hawthorne Experiments and Employee Motivation

Elton Mayo's studies grew out of preliminary experiments at the Hawthorne plant from 1924 to 1927 on the effect of light on productivity. Those experiments showed no clear connection between productivity and the amount of illumination but researchers began to wonder what kind of changes would influence output.

Variables Affecting Productivity

Specifically, Elton Mayo wanted to find out what effect fatigue and monotony had on job productivity and how to control them through such variables as rest breaks, work hours, temperature and humidity. In the process, he stumbled upon a principle of human motivation that would help to revolutionize the theory and practice of management.

Elton Mayo selected two women, and had those two select an additional four from the assembly line, segregated them from the rest of the factory and put them under the eye of a supervisor who was more a friendly observer than disciplinarian. Mayo made frequent changes in their working conditions, always discussing and explaining the changes in advance.

Relay Assembly

The group was employed in assembling telephone relays - a relay being a small but intricate mechanism composed of about forty separate parts which had to be assembled by the girls seated at a lone bench and dropped into a chute when completed.

The relays were mechanically counted as they slipped down the chute. The intent was to measure the basic rate of production before making any environmental changes. Then, as changes were introduced, the impact to effectiveness would be measured by increased or decreased production of the relays.

Feedback mechanism

Throughout the series of experiments, an observer sat with the girls in the workshop noting all that went on, keeping the girls informed about the experiment, asking for advice or information, and listening to their complaints.

The experiment began by introducing various changes, each of which was continued for a test period of four to twelve weeks. The results of these changes are as follows:

Work Conditions and Productivity Results

Under normal conditions with a forty-eight hour week, including Saturdays, and no rest pauses. The girls produced 2,400 relays a week each.

  1. They were then put on piecework for eight weeks.
    • Output increased
  2. They were given two five-minute breaks, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, for a period of five weeks.
    • Output increased, yet again
  3. The breaks were each lengthened to ten minutes.
    • Output rose sharply
  4. Six five-minute breaks were introduced.
    • The girls complained that their work rhythm was broken by the frequent pauses
    • Output fell only slightly
  5. The original two breaks were reinstated, this time, with a complimentary hot meal provided during the morning break.
    • Output increased further still
  6. The workday was shortened to end at 4.30 p.m. instead of 5.00 p.m.
    • Output increased
  7. The workday was shortened to end at 4.00 p.m.
    • Output leveled off
  8. Finally, all the improvements were taken away, and the original conditions before the experiment were reinstated. They were monitored in this state for 12 more weeks.
    • Output was the highest ever recorded - averaging 3000 relays a week

Elton Mayo's Conclusions on Job Performance

Elton Mayo came to the following conclusions as a result of the study:

  • The aptitudes of individuals are imperfect predictors of job performance. Although they give some indication of the physical and mental potential of the individual, the amount produced is strongly influenced by social factors.
  • Informal organization affects productivity. The researchers discovered a group life among the workers. The studies also showed that the relations that supervisors develop with workers tend to influence the manner in which the workers carry out directives.
  • Work-group norms affect productivity. The Hawthorne researchers were not the first to recognize that work groups tend to arrive at norms of what is "a fair day's work." However, they provided the best systematic description and interpretation of this phenomenon.
  • The workplace is a social system. The researchers came to view the workplace as a social system made up of interdependent parts. The worker is a person whose attitudes and effectiveness are conditioned by social demands from both inside and outside the work plant. Informal group within the work plant exercise strong social controls over the work habits and attitudes of the individual worker.
  • The need for recognition, security and sense of belonging is more important in determining workers' morale and productivity than the physical conditions under which he works.

The major finding of the study was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation, worker production seemed to continually improve. One reasonable conclusion is that the workers were happy to receive attention from the researchers who expressed an interest in them. Originally, the study was expected to last one year, but since the findings were inexplicable when the researchers tried to relate the worker's efficiency to manipulated physical conditions, the project was incrementally extended to five years.

Looking Back on the Experiments

For decades, the Hawthorne studies provided the rationale for human relations within the organization. Then, in 1978, R. H. Franke and J.D. Kaul used a new procedure called "time-series analyses" with the original data and variables, including the Great Depression and the instance of a managerial discipline in which two insubordinate and mediocre workers were replaced by two different, productive workers.

They discovered that production was most affected by the replacement of the two workers due to their greater productivity and the effect of the disciplinary action on the other workers. The occurrence of the Depression also encouraged job productivity, perhaps through the increased importance of jobs and the fear of losing them.

Rest periods and a group incentive plan also had a somewhat positive smaller effect on productivity. These variables accounted for almost all the variation in productivity during the experimental period. Social science may have been too ready to embrace the original Hawthorne interpretations since it was looking for theories of employee motivation that were more humane and democratic.

Modern Management Lessons

What seemed to be most impactful during the experiments was that six individuals became a team and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to cooperation in the experiment. Consequently, they felt as if they were participating freely and were happy in the knowledge that they were working without coercion from above or limitation from below.

The experimental group had considerable freedom of movement. With the observer overseeing them, rather than their previous Theory X managers, they weren't pushed around or micromanaged. They were satisfied with the result of working under less pressure than ever before. In fact, regular medical checks showed no signs of cumulative fatigue and absence from work declined by 80 percent. Under these conditions, they developed an increased sense of responsibility. Instead of receiving discipline from higher authority, it emerged from within the group.

Applying the Hawthorne Effect to Employee Motivation

Suppose you select a management trainee and provide specialized training in management skills not currently possessed. Without saying a word, you've given the trainee the feeling that she is so valuable to the organization that you'll spend time and money to develop her skills. She feels she's on a track to the top, which, in turn, motivates her to work harder and more effectively. This form of employee motivation is independent of any particular skills or knowledge she may have gained from the training session. That's the Hawthorne Effect at work.

In a way, the Hawthorne Effect can be construed as an enemy of the modern manager. Carrying the theory further toward cynicism, it could be said that it doesn't matter how you manage, because the Hawthorne Effect will produce the positive outcome you want.

Tracking Process Improvements - Gathering Performance Metrics

Unfortunately, the measurement of performance can unintentionally affect the performance itself. In order to determine the impact of a new or modified process, someone needs to subtly observe workers on the job and monitor production. Occasionally, managers object, saying that observation isn't a valid test, "Of course they'll perform better, you're watching them."

The power of the social setting and peer group dynamics was reinforced for Elton Mayo later in the Hawthorne Studies, when he saw an unusual reaction to his original experiments. A group of 14 men participating in a similar study restricted production because they were distrustful of management and thought that their quotas would be artificially elevated if they were to perform beyond the norm during these studies.

If workers suddenly sense an environmental shift from a Theory X organization to a Theory Y organization, this can trigger false positives from nearly any otherwise meaningless or even slightly detrimental process change. Involving your workers in setting their own direction, showing them that you care about how their job is progressing, and fostering a more positive relationship will create beneficial productivity impacts.

Conversely, if your environment one of mistrust and fear, and the workers unite in rebellion of management's efforts to control and oppress them, there will be little a manager can do to effect positive change without first handling this toxic situation.

Someone Really Cares About Me? - Benefits of the Hawthorne Effect

Elton Mayo realized that the women, exercising a freedom they didn't have on the factory floor, had formed a social atmosphere that also included the productivity-tracking observer. They talked and joked with one another. They began to meet socially outside of work.

When these women were singled out from the rest of the factory workers, it raised their self-esteem. When they were allowed to have a friendly relationship with their supervisor, they felt happier at work. When he discussed changes in advance with them, and allowed them a form of participation, they felt like part of the team. Elton Mayo had secured the girls cooperation and loyalty. This explains why productivity rose even when he took away their rest breaks.

There's nothing wrong with intentionally using the Hawthorne Effect to reach your goals. In fact, the Hawthorne Effect has also been called the 'Somebody Upstairs Cares' syndrome. When people spend a large portion of their time at work, they require a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than themselves. When they do, they are more effective.

This effect has been described as the reward you reap when you pay attention to people. The mere act of showing people that you're concerned about them usually spurs them to better job performance.

That's the true Hawthorne Effect.


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