The Hawthorne Effect

An increase in employee output resulting from the emotional & psychological impact of being communicated with and listened to.

Hawthorne is a district in Cicero, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago),where the Western Electric Company had a factory making telephone equipment in the 1920s and 30s. Starting in 1927, Elton Mayo conducted a five-year programme of investigation into the impact of changes in the physical environment (e.g. noise, temperature and light) of the production line workers on their output.

As an example Mayo made changes in the hours of work and the duration and frequency of rest breaks and the total hours worked in a week. Irrespective of the changes made production either increased or remained static. On one occasion the number of breaks was increased and production dropped as the workers complained that the extra breaks interfered with their rhythm of work.

Even when the workers had all the improvements to their working conditions removed and they were returned to a five and half-day week of 48 hours the production levels increased to the highest ever recorded. He also observed that the social relationships within the work group could also result in lower production levels. This was observed when a group of male workers distrusted Mayo's motives in undertaking a study and as a result production fell drastically.

The conclusions reached by Mayo that production rose completely independently of any of the changes made was in contrast to contemporary researchers such as F.W. Taylor who considered that workers were motivated largely by self-interest and remuneration. Mayo realised that the workers had formed a social grouping; they talked, enjoyed their work and formed social relationships outside work. Mayo concluded that workplaces were social environments and that within them people were at least in part, motivated by social pressures rather than self-interest.

More recently these conclusions have been questioned with some writers putting the observations in a historical context. They argue that the 1920s was a time of economic depression in the USA and this probably also had an impact on employee behaviour.

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