The Hawthorne Effect: social forces affect productivity

GIVEN my lack of time lately, I thought that writing a short post on worker productivity would be amusingly appropriate. I am working 10/11 hour days, studying for the CFA, and writing this blog, among other things. Fun times!

I recently stumbled across an idea called the “Hawthorne Effect”, which I thought it would be interesting to share.

1. The Hawthorne Experiments (1924-1933)

The Hawthorne Effect is named after one of the most famous series of experiments in industrial history.

In the 1920’s and early 1930’s Elton Mayo, a professor of Industrial Management at Harvard Business School, led a series of experiments at Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, Chicago (the “Hawthorne Experiments“).

The original purpose of the Hawthorne Experiments was to study the effect of physical working conditions on productivity.

Initially interested in the effect of lighting levels on worker productivity, the researchers improved the lighting in the work area for one group of workers (the “Experimental Group”) and kept the lighting levels unchanged for another group of workers. Interestingly, the researchers found that the productivity of workers in the Experimental Group increased significantly.

The Experimental Group’s working conditions were then changed in other ways (e.g. working hours, rest breaks) and, each time a change was made, the Experimental Group’s productivity improved.

Most interestingly, the Experimental Group’s productivity even improved when the lighting was dimmed to its original level.

By the time the Hawthorne Experiments were completed, and the working conditions for the Experimental Group were returned to normal, productivity was at record highs.

Obviously, the improvements in productivity could not be explained by the changes made to working conditions. So, what caused the productivity improvements?

The researchers concluded that the improvements in productivity resulted from the simple fact that the workers felt that they were being attended to and that someone was taking an active interest in their workplace.

Although, subsequent analysis has placed some doubt on these conclusions.

2. The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect is the idea that people will alter their behavior in response to being observed. In psychology this phenomenon is referred to as reactivity.

The Hawthorne Effect indicates that productivity in the workplace is reactive and social. The productivity and performance of an employee is influenced in a meaningful way by attention received from management.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld notes that the Hawthorne Experiments brought to light ideas concerning motivational influences, job satisfaction, resistance to change, group norms, worker participation, and effective leadership. All ground breaking concepts in the 1930’s. (A New Vision, Essay by Professors Michel Anteby and Rakesh Khurana)