Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Experiments

Early Exploration of Workplace Motivation

Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Experiments - Early Exploration of Workplace Motivation

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What causes workers to be more productive? Researchers have asked this question for years. In fact, pioneering work began in the 1920s as an attempt to discover ways to increase production efficiency – and then led both to the founding of the human relations school of management, and to the development of many of the motivational tools that are used today.

At the center of this work was Elton Mayo, a Harvard researcher. He looked at the results of early motivation experiments and concluded that psychological and social factors played a larger role in productivity than physical elements.

Experiments at Hawthorne

In 1927, researchers were trying to determine the optimal amount of lighting, temperature, and humidity for assembling electronic components at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant. The results showed that lighting had no consistent effect on production. Researchers were frustrated to discover that increasing light increased output, but reducing light also increased output. The common factor, it seemed, was that something in the work environment was changed, and that positive effects were then observed.

After thoroughly examining the results, Elton Mayo and his fellow researchers determined that workers weren't responding to the change in lighting conditions, but instead were reacting to the fact that they were being observed by the experimenters. This phenomenon became known as the Hawthorne effect. The workers' awareness that researchers were measuring their productivity was sufficient to increase productivity.

This idea is similar in philosophy to the Pygmalion effect, which states that high expectations lead to high outcomes.

The identification of the Hawthorne effect led to the recognition of the importance of psychological and social factors at work. Further experiments over the next five years revealed that human factors played a large role in workplace motivation and productivity. Researchers manipulated factors like break times, pay, and the type of supervision. Each time, they found increases in output.

Through the test results and interviews with the workers involved in the experiments, researchers discovered the effects on productivity of worker attitudes, the peer group, and other social forces, as well supervisory style. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, the researchers concluded that economic motivation was not the only source of productivity. In fact, in many cases pay wasn't even the most important factor in worker output.

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The findings of the Hawthorne experiments broadened the study of the workplace beyond the influences of the Scientific Management movement, and its emphasis on the efficiency of workers' actions. Specifically, the findings laid the foundation for modern motivation theory by concluding the following:

  • Workplace culture plays a significant role in productivity.
  • Work conditions affect productivity, but pay is not the only stimulating factor.
  • Management style and leadership affect productivity.
  • Job satisfaction influences work output.
  • Work is a social environment. Social and psychological factors like interaction, self-esteem, and cooperation are important for high productivity.

Key Points

The Hawthorne experiments are largely credited with laying the foundation of our current understanding of the relationships between motivation, job satisfaction, change, and leadership.

While paying attention to people and cultural issues is a standard part of today's approach to leadership, this was innovative and new in the 1930s. The Hawthorne findings led researchers to study the importance of human factors in job performance, and these studies have heavily influenced best practices in areas such as training, choosing supervisory staff, and establishing favorable work conditions.

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Comments (2)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi JosieB

    I had to smile at the honesty of your posting! I think many of us have been in exactly the same boat and we keep quiet because we don't want to look stupid in front of other people. So... YAY MindTools!!
    Thanks for sharing with us.

    Cheers
    Yolandé
  • Over a month ago JosieB wrote
    Thank goodness you posted this! I've been to numerous business events where someone alludes to the Hawthorne experiments and I've just smiled and nodded because I didn't know what it was all about. I always forgot to Google it when I returned home and now I don't have to. I'm part of the enlightened crowd!!! Many, many thanks.