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The Hawthorne Effect

November 27, 2009

The managers at Company X continually cited the need for upgraded facilities and new equipment when confronted with their failure to compete effectively with Company Y. The corporation that owned Company X decided to invest several million dollars in upgrading its factory. State of the art equipment was installed in the new, carefully engineered production line.

Company Y continued to operate from its antiquated plant in the old warehouse district. It looked pretty rundown from the outside and it had been some time since any new equipment had been installed.

Despite Company X’s physical advantages, Company Y continued to be the market leader. Company X changed management and continued to invest in upgraded facilities and equipment. Frustrated and puzzled, the corporation that owned Company X eventually sold out.

Why wasn’t Company X able to compete effectively with Company Y? As in all complex situations there are a number of factors involved, but most likely one of those factors is an underestimate of the human dimension involved in production.

The behavioral approach to management emphasizes that there is a human as well as a physical dimension to production. Behavioralists stress that improved performance results from the appreciation and understanding of people. The behavioral approach traces its origins to a series of studies begun in 1924 at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company.

The initial phase of the study was done to analyze the effect of illumination on production workers. It was assumed that as illumination increased, productivity would increase. The intensity of the light for a test group was increased while the lighting conditions for the rest of the employees was held constant.

As anticipated, each time the lighting conditions improved, the productivity improved. To validate the hypothesis, however, the researchers then decreased the illumination for the test group. To their astonishment, productivity increased again. In fact, every time they made a change, up or down, the productivity of the test group was higher than the base group.

From the results of this first phase of the Hawthorne study, it was clear that no predictable, exclusive relationship existed between illumination and productivity. Back in 1924 it was extremely unclear, however, why productivity had increased.

A second phase of the test was commissioned to investigate the unanticipated results of the illumination experiment. The impact of a variety of working conditions such as rest periods and the length of the workday on productivity were analyzed in this phase.

Again, the results were surprising. Without regard to the experimental variation, the productivity of the test group continued to exceed the base group.

Extensive interviewing of the employees was done to determine why productivity continued to increase throughout the test. It was concluded that the employees enjoyed the extra attention they received being involved in the test.

The monotony of their every day job had been changed by being included in a novel and seemingly interesting experiment. The special attention that the researchers paid to the workers in the test group caused their morale and productivity to improve, regardless of the physical working conditions.

The experiments at Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company resulted in the recognition of a phenomenon called the Hawthorne effect. Researchers have come to understand the Hawthorne effect to mean that the mere act of observation alters the activity that is being observed.

Turn the lights up, productivity increases. Turn the lights down, productivity increases. It became clear that the workers were responding to the personal attention and the feeling of importance that accompanied being part of the test.

There is an equally important message for managers. Pay attention and let people know they’re important. Letting them know you care and what they’re doing is important and can have a greater impact than perfect working conditions.

The results of these early Hawthorne experiments plus an additional study analyzing group incentives stressed the importance of viewing the human element of an organization. The studies revealed that the needs of employees are both physical and social. They underscored the existence of the informal social group as a natural outgrowth of the behavior patterns inherent in the formal structure of an organization.

Because its your business, invest your time in the human relations dimension of productivity when you invest your dollars in new lighting.

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