The Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne experiments were conducted at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant in Illinois, running from 1924 through 1932. These experiments were intended to examine how people would react to certain conditions such as light, heat, and humidity. These variables were altered and produced both expected and unexpected results. Further trials embarked as Professor George Elton Mayo brought an academic research team into the factory, which were among the most extensive social science studies ever conducted. These investigations have been heavily criticized for merely serving the interest of management. However, these accusations can be argued. The Hawthorne investigations did not only have enormous influence on the ‘human factors’ to management but also on the development of industrial psychology and sociology. Some maintain their opinion that the human relations approach is misinterpreted, leading to major failures.

The Hawthorne studies were initially undertaken to investigate the relationship between physical work conditions and employers productivity. But the experiments represented revolutionary work in the field of management and lead to the creation of the human relations movement. These studies broke the boundaries of the management theory of the time, Taylorism. Scientific management, developed by Frederick W. Taylor, was a concentration exclusively on the physical aspects of work, ignoring the psychological needs and capabilities of the worker. Taylor’s view of management became inadequate due to the findings of the Hawthorne researchers, who revealed that the physical work environment was one of the only many aspects which influence employee productivity. This style of management became known as authoritarian. The human relations school was concerned with the human aspect of work, meaning that interpersonal relations, especially the feelings within working groups were of importance. Group harmony, satisfaction of individual needs, and the care for people were vital. By the individual worker being able to participate and involved in the decision making related positively to the productivity. In other words, this represents a democratic way of leadership. Nonetheless, particular studies also point out that productivity is sometimes positively connected to the authoritarian style. Showing that certain people do prefer to be controlled and directed.

The primary experiment for the Hawthorne studies was to examine the connection between the illumination intensity and employee productivity. It showed that as the lightning improved in the experimental room, production increased. But production also rose in the control room. Followed by a slight amount of light in the experimental room, production was still rising, while there was constant illumination in the control room However, the results by 1927 were so confusing, that Elton Mayo and an academic research team were invited to continue a variety of inquiries on productivity and the motivation of worker.

The next experiment that took place from 1927 to 1933 was the Relay assembly test room. This engaged a small group of female staff taken to work in a Relay assembly room, away from the regular workforce, varying the number and lengths of breaks and working days. The women were cautiously studied and a total of thirteen periods with different rest pauses, hours of work, and breaks for refreshment were conducted. The result of this phase showed that regardless the changes, there was almost no persistent increase in output. This became known as the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. This effect refers to the tendency that people act differently when being observed during a research. The results were influenced by this reaction of the small group of women due to the observation of the researchers. The women were not motivated by the improvements of their working conditions or money, but a reason was that working in a group had increased their output. However, in the group work the productivity rose by 15 percent and management made rest breaks more common. Psychologists were especially interested in this particular study. They found it phenomenal that people’s attitudes changed as they were being watched since it seemed more important than changes to the physical work conditions.

The Interviewing programme took place from 1928 until 1930. In this period of time 21,000 employees were interviewed. Interviewers began through asking highly structured questions on work and its conditions and then about non-related work issues, e.g. on family and social issues. The friendlier, the more interest the supervisors showed in the individual worker, and the less harsh discipline existed, the more increases in productivity and morale became significant. The researchers learned a great deal about the staff’s attitude towards their job. This finding’s reveal that workers actually lacked social support and that placing individuals in groups had a positive effect. A famous psychologist, Rensis Likert, contended that organizations should be managed as a collection of groups, rather than individuals.

The Bank wiring observations room experiments commenced in 1931 until 1932. This test was conducted without any alteration in the working condition. A group of fourteen workers were taken from the production line and observed for six months. Each employee had three different jobs but worked together in order to produce one output. During this time, the group developed its own procedures to defend its own interests. Productivity remained constant and was unaffected by work payments. The group had developed informal rules of behaviour and determined what was a fair days payment for a fair day’s work. The worker’s were afraid that if they produced considerably more output, that the daily unit output would be replaced by an increase of expected output. These results show that the social forces were far more important for the worker than the controls and regulations of the organization. Again stressing the meaning for the worker to belong to a group and not be isolated. Communication from the superior to the employee would eliminate such misunderstandings.

The Hawthorne studies did contribute an immense amount to management and served them enormously as we have seen from the various experiments discussed. It was a revolutionary research project at that point of time and discovered a whole new era in the human relations movement. Nevertheless, the Hawthorne reports did affect psychology and sociology. It affected especially the industrial psychology, meaning the observation of specific human behavior. Especially, the ‘Hawthorne effect’ was in the interest of the psychologists and it became one of the best-known psychological results. The effect has been generalized to every kind of psychological study. However, recently the Hawthorne effect has been reanalyzed and considering it to be a myth. There is no solid evidence that the workers in the relay room felt better in response to personal attention by supervisors and the participation in a new programme.

Criticisms always exist with each single new discovery; someone will always have something to declare. It is up to the manager to know how to handle its business. However, it may be true that Mayo’s conclusions of human relations movement cannot always be applied. Some organizations need more direction and a specific structure for their employees. Finding a midpoint with both the Taylorism and Mayonism would be an effective way of leadership.

Further criticisms pronounce that the Hawthorne studies cannot be seen as an accurate research. They insist that there was a ‘lack of adequate control’ in the study. There were rumors that Elton Mayo did not appear, accurately controlled the variables of the experiment, nor noted them down correctly. Supposedly, changes in the number of participants, misinterpretations, and inaccurate history of work circumstances during the study, provided false results. Yet, these factors are minor when considering the real contributions the Hawthorne studies have brought to management and psychology. These are determent’s that exist but not make the study any less valuable to knowledge. Another ideological critique argues that ‘the studies showed a pro-management bias in favor of manipulating the workforce.’ However, the key view of management at that time was Taylorism, which entirely ignored the human element. No matter how many critiques and debates there are about the faults of the Hawthorne studies, the contributions well over take all assumptions. The discovery that physical work conditions were not the prime importance of the worker but also social factors was a break through.

The main conclusions that can be drawn from Elton Mayo’s experiments are it is essential that work is a group activity, the necessity of recognition, need for security, and job satisfaction. Organizations are social systems, not just technical economic systems. It was proven that management requires social skills and not just technical skills. Only giving the employee specific instructions and demands will give the worker the wrong impression. It is necessary to have some contact in order to achieve knowledge of what is going on between the workers. This knowledge can effectively improve the boss’s management skill and through this contact earn the necessary respect. Since, the Hawthorne studies are not methodologically precise, it does not reduce the importance of their findings. They were revolutionary, no one before had noticed that human relations were that important to organizational output. Humans were seen as ‘machines’ until the studies came along. Then the well being of employees became of significant and changed the way managerial style.

In conclusion, it has become evident that there are various approaches to organizational efficiency. The first significant method was scientific management, where the main focus was on the physical aspect of work, also on the individual worker and not group work. Taylor furthermore ignored the importance of other rewards than money, such as achievement and job satisfaction. As the Hawthorne studies were conducted and moved away from Taylorism, which indicated a paradigm shift, redefining the field of management research. It had broken the traditional theory of Taylor and no study had ever had such an impact on management as the Hawthorne investigations. Elton Mayo was known as the main supporter of the human relations movement in management. He stated that in order to motivate people, meaning increase in output and efficiency, the individual worker has to believe that their corporation cares about them, is concerned, and willing to listen. The emotional and social sides were major attributes of organizational behavior. These studies did have an enormous amount of influence on management but also on sociology and psychology. In spite of all criticisms, the Hawthorne studies still contributed a significant amount and redefined management. It also brought one of the most important results to psychology.

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