Hawthorn on motivation


The Hawthorn Studies

In 1924, an Australian born Harvard Professor and researcher named George Elton Mayo and colleagues conducted experiments at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works plant in Chicago.  This test site became the scene of a series of studies designed to identify the effects of various working conditions on productivity.  The first tests conducted involved a series of lighting changes to determine the relationship between illumination and worker efficiency.  It was expected that there would be a positive correlation between illumination levels and productivity; the more light (up to some point) the higher the productivity.

From the fall of 1924 to the spring of 1927, three series of tests were conducted and carefully monitored.  However, the results of these tests were rather baffling to the researchers and plant officials.  Rather than a clear relationship between illumination levels and productivity, production tended to increase in each of the test periods regardless of the type of changes (increase or decrease) in illumination.  Though the researchers did expect that other (human/social) elements would influence (confound) the effects of worker productivity when the lighting experiments were conducted, they were surprised at the significances of these effects.  It appeared as though these “other” effects had a much greater influence on the experimental conditions than they had anticipated.

Relay-Assembly Tests

In order to observe the impact of these “other” factors, a second set of tests were designed and implemented beginning in April of 1927. The relay-assembly tests were designed to evaluate the effect that rest periods, hours of work and other factors would have on efficiency.  Researchers hoped to answer a series of questions concerning why output declined in the afternoon and what environmental changes in working conditions would positively affect productivity.

Six women operators volunteered for the study.  These women were isolated in a separate room to assure accuracy in measuring output and quality.  Test periods would be conducted where the length of break periods, the number of break periods, the total number of hour worked in a day and a number of other factors would be changed to determine their effect on productivity.  A male observer was in the test room to keep accurate records, maintain cordial working conditions, and provide some degree of supervision over the women.  The women were told precisely what the study was designed to measure (productivity) but urged to work at a comfortable rate that they felt was sustainable for the long-run.  It is important to note that these women were not only aware of each of these environmental changes before they were initiated, they also had input into what changes should take place.  Though it was not foreseen by the researchers prior to these test periods, this worker involvement in the “process” was in important factor in understanding what subsequently occurred.

The relay-assembly task involved hand-assembly of more than 35 parts to create electromagnetic switches used in switching telephone calls automatically. The entire process was highly labor intensive and the speed of assembly was the major factor in productivity.  Prior to the beginning of the actual study, baseline productivity measures were taken to determine the level of productivity that these women would achieve without any changes in their environment.

In August, a total of twelve environmental manipulations began as the experimenters changed the numbers and length of rest periods, the total number of work hours in the day, and several other factors over the rest of the test periods.  Almost without exception, productivity increased regardless of what changes were made.  This result is particularly striking when one considers that the conditions of periods 7, 10 and 12 were identical to the baseline conditions (they were the same conditions the women experienced prior to the beginning of the experimental changes), yet absenteeism was significantly lower and productivity was a full 30% higher than it had been before the experiment began.  If the assumptions on which the study was based had been correct, if the output rate were directly related to the physical conditions of work, then these three experimental periods would result in similar productivity levels.  The Relay-Assembly test results confirmed the illumination findings that social factors had a greater effect on performance than working condition factors.

The researchers drew several conclusions from their experiments at the Hawthorn Plant:

  • Workers were not motivated solely by pay.
  • Group work and behavior were essential to organizational objectives and tied directly to efficiency.
  • High employee performance at work depended on individual worker attitudes.
  • The aptitudes of individuals were 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 Hawthorne 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.
  • The workplace is a social system.  The workplace is a type of social system made up of interdependent parts.

The Hawthorne studies have been described as the most important social science experiment ever conducted in an industrial setting.  While it may be true that these studies did not answer any of the questions that they set out to answer, they did generate a set of important questions that many researchers subsequently worked hard to investigate.  The lessons learned during these years of experimentation provided researchers with a new focus on what we now call the ‘human relations’ movement.  These studies marked an ‘awakening’ among researchers that the group and social processes of a work setting play a very significant role in the performance of individuals.

One of the most significant conclusions of the studies was that the Hawthorn employees were highly motivated by the intrinsic quality of their work.  For instance, it is widely accepted that the dynamics of the work setting (a close knit group of women) enhanced the level of cohesiveness of the group, increased the accountability that they felt toward one another and enhanced the pride of their workmanship.  It was the social fabric of the work room environment, including the male observer that sat with them all day, that gave the women a feeling of importance, a feeling of pride in their work, and a feeling of empowerment as they worked along side the researchers to determine the ways in which productivity could be increased.  Quite simply put, these women worked with greater efficiency and greater effectiveness because they believed that what they did ‘mattered’.  And this is the essence of an intrinsic reward… those things that are felt… “rewards that are of emotional value versus monetary value”.

As I mentioned earlier, this revelation led to a plethora of studies designed to examine the nature of these intrinsic rewards and their effects on performance.  The next study moves us forward in our understanding of the nature of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  The lesson that it teaches us is critical to our understanding of how to reward employees in order to maximize their motivation to achieve organizational goals.


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