What is the Hawthorne Effect

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What is the Hawthorne Effect

There are many factors on which the workers output depends on; income, work hours, holidays, individual importance, even the fact that they are being monitored. This is what the Hawthorne effect explains.

The Hawthorne effect basically states that any person taking part in a study, works better because they are in the study. This reason overpowers all the other independent variables that the observers use to determine work output responses. The study was started off by Elton Mayo, a professor of Industrial Management at Harvard Business School in the 1920s, along with his protégé, Fritz J. Roethlisberger. The place of research was the Hawthorne plant outside Chicago. The original aim of the mammoth nine-year study was to determine the relation between management and employee, along with certain workplace conditions. The expected result was to find out a way to increase the overall worker output while maintaining a good worker-boss relationship.

The Hawthorne Experiments

Before the Hawthorne Revelation

Work ethics were considered mediocre around the 1900s. Worker welfare and working conditions were revealed as poor. It was uncommon for an industry to face frequent union strikes. In order to reduce this conflict, management all over started to put more focus on the workers, with the help of better benefits, sick pay, pensions, stock options, etc. They also inculcated an increased amount of recreational activity for the workers. All this was common around the 1920s and 1930s, due to improving economic conditions.

Hawthorne Works

The Western Electric Hawthorne Works for the Manufacture of Power Apparatus spanned over a hundred acres in Cicero, Illinois. The management at Hawthorne Works wanted to determine the effect of lighting conditions on the overall worker output. They also incorporated shorter working hours and more rest periods. Unsure of the final result, they began collaborating with the Government and Harvard Business School, from where Elton Mayo came into the picture. Mayo believed in the worker output’s dependence on the worker’s mental well-being.

The Study and Conclusions

The longest and the most elaborate of the series of experiments in the Hawthorne Works was observing the output of six relay assembly workers in a test room, separated from the rest of the workers. It turned out that the workers developed strong friendships from the beginning. They showed some signs of slight discomfort because of the fact that they were being monitored. But on the whole, they showed a significant work output and better mental well-being than those on the regular assembly line. Various experiments were conducted on the test room employees, including changing break times and durations, provision of food during these breaks and changing the total days work timing.

During the entire time, Mayo and Roethlisberger conducted extensive interviews with a lot of employees. They wanted to find out the number of, and to what extent, the number of external factors influenced worker output. They discovered that instead of a questionnaire format of interview, workers revealed more if the interviewer played the role of a “conversationalist” rather than a passive observer. He would later conclude the report with importance on the worker’s personal attitude, the effect of supervision and the need of healthy informal relationships. He also stated the requirement of a channel for free self-expression to ‘get things off their chests’.

Although the study was later scrapped due to the recession, Mayo came out with enough statistics, reports and worker opinions to finish up. He later talked about his findings in lectures.

Global Impact

“The Hawthorne Effect” was thus coined and stated as the change in response a subject under behavioral studies makes due to being observed. It was concluded that paying special attention to a worker, setting him/her apart from the others in a positive manner may help more than pay hikes and recreation activities. In short, it reminded the management the true importance of a worker as more than just a cog in the gear-set.

The Hawthorne effect finds itself in almost every single observation and social or work-floor experiments. It even includes any and all personalized self-help guides out there. Someone with a social problem becomes introverted. A qualified professional helper, encourages that person to overcome his/her problems using the principle factors of the Hawthorne effect such as –

  • open conversations
  • constant monitoring (indeed, sometimes the patient or the professional stay at the same location)
  • a semiconscious effort of improving self-esteem through informal connections

Even large-scale businesses use the effect to get the most out of their employees. A constant evaluation process on a daily basis to observe the employee output is enough to boost work-rate up a notch. In fact, a smart use of the effect can also help you get what you want. Just the fact that he/she is being watched by peers or subordinates will change the decision that the person might make.

Limitations with the Hawthorne Effect

Every coin has two side, and the results of the Hawthorne effect has its negative side too.

  • The entire process is observed under a hierarchy. Therefore, the manager of the company almost always gets the final say, in terms of actual employee output. This can be bad if the manager tends to possess personal links to any employees.
  • The effect is difficult to use or read in cases where there can be people/employees with mild mental illnesses.
  • The method of working for every employee will always be dynamic. No one can work at the same pace, day in and day out. The Hawthorne effect fails to provide details in this part.

The Hawthorne effect concludes that humans need informal social activity and a sense of being paid enough attention to, in order to work better. This applies to a larger extent than wages and holidays and therefore is something that companies cannot fail to overlook.

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