By the
Mind Tools
Editorial Team

Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Experiments

Early Exploration of Workplace Motivation

Elton Mayo discovered the Hawthorne Effect

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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...

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