Hawthorne studies

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The Hawthorne Studies, conducted at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant outside Chicago, starting in 1924 and running through 1936, were intended to bring about a greater understanding of the effects of working conditions on worker productivity. The results of the experiments were contrary to the management theory of the time (see scientific management), and were key in bringing about an understanding of motivation factors in employment.

The studies have had a profound effect on the field of Organizational development.

Contents

The Hawthorne Effect

Researchers, including Professor Elton Mayo, studied the effect of workplace innovations on worker productivity. The Hawthorne effect is an improvement in a process by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important.

The Hawthorne Studies are credited with helping to start the Human Relations Movement in management and organizational thinking.

The Experiments

Prelude: Lighting Conditions

(1924-1927)

The studies began prior to Mayo's involvement, with an experiment at the Hawthorne Works to discover the effect of different intensities of lighting on the production line had on the productivity of its staff.

The study involved manipulating the lighting for one group of workers and compared their productivity against another group in which the work area lighting was never changed. They found, when the lighting was increased for the experimental group, productivity went up in both groups. Then, they found, even when the lighting was decreased for the experimental group, still both groups had increased productivity. Not until the lighting of the work area was decreased to the level of moonlight did productivity begin to decline.

This result led the researchers to question what effects other changes in working conditions would have on output.

The Relay Assembly Group

(1927-1929)

A small group of nine women assembling terminal banks for telephone exchanges was taken to work in a relay assembly room, and subjected to various conditions such as break length, working hours, type of work and so on. The changes were always discussed with the staff in question beforehand. The experiment established a piecemeal incentive pay plan, that is, the employees were paid according to how many units they were able to produce. They found, that the small group had informally established an acceptable level of output for its members. Employees who overproduced were branded “rate busters,” and under-producers were labeled “chislers.” To be accepted by the group, workers would have to produce an acceptable level. They also found, as workers approached their “acceptable” level of output, they began to slack off to avoid over producing.

The result of this phase was that, in general, regardless of the nature and amplitude of the change in working conditions, the productivity of the small group increased. This became known as the "Hawthorne Effect".

Interviews

(1928-1930)

Interviews were conducted with the staff of the Hawthorne Works, in order to establish the staff's attitude towards their job. Relationships with supervisors and co-workers were revealed to be highly important.

Bank Wiring Observation Room

(1932)

This phase of the super experiments was conducted without alteration in working conditions by the researchers. A group of 14 staff were taken from the production line and set to work, to be observed over 6 months.

In that time, the group developed its own procedures to protect its interests. Productivity remained constant, and was unaffected by pay incentives.

Personnel Counselling

(1936)

Sessions with a personnel counsellor were scheduled for the staff, where problems with the job were discussed.

Conclusions

  • Employees must be considered as part of a group as well as individuals.
  • Status within a group often means more to an employee than pay and favourable working conditions.
  • Informal groups have a strong effect on behaviour.

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