The Hawthorne Studies

As human beings, all of us yearn for recognition – be it at home or at work. A lot of studies have been conducted to understand the correlation between human psychology and personal productivity. One of the earliest and most quoted ones, popularly known as the Hawthorne Study, dates back to the 1920s.

The aim behind the Hawthorne study was to find out the effect of physical environment changes on employees in an organization. Various factors were considered during the research, most importantly the psychological aspects such as working hours, managerial leadership, group pressure etc. During the course of research it was found that the biggest impact came from the attention paid to the employees.

The Hawthorne studies were conducted between 1927 and 1932 at Western Electric`s Hawthorne plant near Chicago. (General Electric initially sponsored the research but withdrew its support after the first study was finished.) Several researchers were involved, the best known being Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger, Harvard faculty members and consultants, and William Dickson, chief of Hawthorne`s Employee Relations Research Department.

The studies were intended to examine the influence of environmental variables on a group of production workers. The group of workers was divided into two subgroups: a test group, which would undergo environmental changes, and a control group. The members of the control group would work under normal, constant environment conditions.

The first major experiment at Hawthorne studied the effects of different levels of lighting on productivity. The researchers systematically manipulated the lighting in the area in which a group of women worked. The group`s productivity was measured and compared with that of another group (the control group) whose lighting was left unchanged. As lighting was increased for the experimental group, productivity went up-but, interestingly, so did the productivity of the control group. Even when lighting was subsequently reduced, the productivity of both groups continued to increase. Not until the lighting had become almost as dim as moonlight did productivity start to decline. This led the researchers to conclude that lighting had no relationship to productivity-and at this point General Electric withdrew its sponsorship of the project!

The next experiment utilized a mainstay of scientific management: incentive-based, piecework system. The researchers expected, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, that this would inspire the employees to dramatically increase their pace. However, rather than working as fast as they could individually, the workers calibrated themselves as a group. Employees who worked more slowly than average were derided as “chiselers.” Employees who attempted to work faster than the group were called “rate busters.” In other words, any significant deviation from the collectively imposed norm was punished.

These results were, of course, a major blow to the position of scientific management, which held that employees were only motivated by individual economic interest. The Hawthorne studies drew attention to the social needs as an additional source of motivation. Taylor’s emphasis on economic incentives was not wholly discredited, but economic incentives were now viewed as one factor–not the sole factor–to which employees responded.

Four general conclusions were drawn from the Hawthorne studies:

  1. The aptitudes of individuals are imperfect predictors of job performance. Although they give some indication of the physical and mental potential of the individual, the amount produced is strongly influenced by social factors.
  2. Informal organization affects productivity. The Hawthorne researchers discovered a group life among the workers. The studies also showed that the relations that supervisors develop with workers tend to influence the manner in which the workers carry out directives.
  3. Work-group norms affect productivity. The Hawthorne researchers were not the first to recognize that work groups tend to arrive at norms of what is a fair day’s work; however, they provided the best systematic description and interpretation of this phenomenon.
  4. The workplace is a social system. The Hawthorne researchers came to view the workplace as a social system made up of interdependent parts.

The Hawthorne Experiments are mainly criticized on the following grounds:

1. Lacks Validity:

The Hawthorne experiments were conducted under controlled situations. These findings will not work in real setting. The workers under observation knew about the experiments. Therefore, they may have improved their performance only for the experiments.

2. More Importance to Human Aspects:

The Hawthorne experiment gives too much importance to human aspects. Human aspects alone cannot improve production. Production also depends on technological and other factors.

3. More Emphasis on Group Decision-making:

The Hawthorne experiments placed too much emphasis on group decision-making. In real situation, individual decision-making cannot be totally neglected especially when quick decisions are required and there is no time to consult others.

4. Over Importance to Freedom of Workers:

The Hawthorne experiment gives a lot of importance to freedom of the workers. It does not give importance to the constructive role of the supervisors. In reality too much of freedom to the workers can lower down their performance or productivity.


In modern business, the Hawthorne effect is still considered vital in team management. Managers can help employees increase their work output by paying attention to their daily work and recognizing and rewarding accomplishments. These gestures provide a sense of enhanced self-worth value for the employee. This is a huge motivational factor and can be applied to individuals and teams for increased performance levels.

Like the work of Taylor, the Hawthorne studies have recently been called into question. Critics cite deficiencies in research methods and offer alternative explanations of the findings. Again, however, these studies were a major factor in the advancement of organizational behavior and are still among its most frequently cited works.



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