The Hawthorne Effect and Productivity in Organizations

The Hawthorne Effect and Productivity in Organizations

In 1924, the National Research Council, at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric Company in Chicago, began a series of experiments to see how much lighting affected productivity. It was verified that with each alteration in the lighting, there was an improvement in productivity; however, when returning to the initial lighting conditions, productivity remained high, indicating that the attention given to the work environment was the predominant factor, not the luminosity itself. Over the years, studies and experiments in Hawthorne, which lasted until 1932, greatly expanded the initial focus, also addressing aspects of working time, intervals, incentives, and other issues relevant to employees, becoming a benchmark in the study of work productivity, alongside Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Administration at Work, published in 1911 (Taylor focused more on the individual, Hawthorne’s studies focused more on the group, and the social aspects involved). Elton Mayo, a famous psychologist, sociologist, researcher and professor at the Harvard Business School has conducted some experiments in Hawthorne, as well.

From the studies, the concept of Hawthorne effect has emerged: “The Hawthorne effect is the change in behavior that individuals have because they know they are being the focus of attention.” There are different versions (there is no official version) regarding the Hawthorne effect, although they are, obviously, around the same point. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “The alteration of behavior by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed.” The American dictionary Merrien-Webster says: “The stimulation to output or accomplishment that results from the mere fact of being under observation.” The various authors who studied the theme, produced other versions, in the work of Ryan Olson, Jessica Verley, Lindsey Santos, and Coresta Salas (University of Santa Clara – 2004), published in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, we can see a table with 13 variations of the definition of the Hawthorne effect, referring to several authors.

Although it is one of the most famous and well-known researches on labor productivity, a pioneer in the sociological aspect, it receives some critics for the form of application and validation of the tests, that’s why there are some questions about its results, as done in the article of Steven D. Levitt and John A. List, 2011, entitled “Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the main findings of the Hawthorne studies are:

  • Productivity is strongly influenced by social factors rather than simply worker competence;
  • Informal relationships between workers influence performance and productivity. The way the boss treats the subordinate is very relevant to the outcome;
  • Working groups are governed by informal labor quotas, creating barriers to overcoming what would be “one-day fair work”;
  • The work environment is a social system, where social and psychological factors are more important to achieving outcomes than benefits offered, or hours worked.

Despite the controversy, which discusses its methodology and results, Hawthorne’s studies are one of the most important in the social field, not only for pioneering, but for the influence it has until the present day.

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