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The Hawthorne Studies

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            Management is continuously undergoing a paradigm shift. Besides the new workplace, environmental changes such as advanced information technology, globalization, and recognition and management of diversity and ethics are significant challenges faced by the management. The ongoing changes are dictating new rules, new boundaries, and new behaviors that are essential for organizations and managers to be successful. This new paradigm facing management requires a new perspective and an appreciation of the human behavioral side of management. In this scenario, the field of organizational behavior attains lot of importance. This field is relatively new and therefore is surrounded by a lot of speculations and apprehensions. Its beginnings are attributed to the famous Hawthorne studies conducted in 1920s. These studies are often criticized for methodological flaws, yet Hawthorne studies laid down the foundations of organizational behavior and marked the start point for all further research in this field. This essay will scrutinize this study conducted by Professor Elton Mayo and bring out its implications in the field of organizational behavior and analyze it in light of research in this field.

Historical Background

            The early management pioneers such as Henri Fayol, Henry Ford, Alfred P. Sloan, and even the scientific managers at the end of the 19th century such as Frederick W. Taylor, did recognize the behavioral side of management. However, they did not emphasize the human dimension. They let it play only a minor role in comparison with the roles of hierarchical structure, specialization, and the management functions of planning and controlling. Even at the time of World War I, people were not considered as an important asset. Henry Fayol in his book, which is considered to be the first book on management, emphasizes that the purpose of the organization was to get the work done in specialized, machinelike function. Yet, Peter Drucker (1997), known to be the father of management sciences, states “The organization is, above all, social. It is people.” There had been varied and complex reasons for the emergence of the importance of the organization as a social entity, but it is the famous Hawthorne studies that provide historical roots for the notion of a social organization made up of people and marks the generally recognized starting point for the field of organizational behavior.

Studies Conducted at Western Electric Company

            In 1924, the studies started at the huge Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company outside of Chicago, under supervision of Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo. The initial illumination studies attempted to examine the relationship between light intensity on the shop floor of manual work sites and employee productivity. A test group and a control group were used. The test group in an early phase showed no increase or decrease in output in proportion to the increase or decrease of illumination. The control group with unchanged illumination increased output by the same amount overall as the test group. Subsequent phases brought the level of light down to moonlight intensity; the workers could barely see what they were doing but productivity increased.  The results were baffling to the researchers. Obviously, some variable in the level of illumination was causing the change in productivity. This something, of course, was the complex human variable.

            The illumination studies were followed by a study in the relay room, where operators assembled relay switches. This phase of study tried to test specific variables, such as length of workday, rest breaks, and method of payment. The results were basically the same as those of the illumination studies: each test period yielded higher productivity than the previous one. Even when the workers were subjected to the original conditions of the experiment, productivity increased. Still another phase was the bank wiring room study. As in the preceding relay room experiments, the bank wirers placed in a separate test room study. The results of the bank wiring room study were essentially opposite to those of the relay room experiments. In the bank wiring room there were not the continual increases in productivity as that occurred in the relay room. Rather, output was actually restricted by the bank wirers.

Findings of the Hawthorne Studies

            Elton Mayo found a change in productivity levels as a result of his experiments based on human behavior. These experiments hence attained lot of importance, and in fact these turned out to be the focus of world attention. This gave birth to the field of organizational behavior and a human element was thus being included as an important facet of management. Despite lot of flaws in the methodology of the Hawthorne studies, these still provide a guideline for further research in this field. A few of the important findings of the Hawthorne studies are enumerated below, which mark the roots for the subject of organizational behavior (“Hawthorne Experiments,” 2005):

  1. Productivity increases when people are working in small groups. Hence work can be attributed as a group activity.
  2. The social world of the adult is primarily patterned about work activity.
  3. The need for recognition, security and sense of belonging is more important in determining workers’ morale and productivity than the physical conditions under which he works.
  4. A complaint is not necessarily an objective recital of facts; it is commonly a symptom manifesting disturbance of an individual’s status position.
  5. The worker is a person whose attitudes and effectiveness are conditioned by social demands from both inside and outside the work plant.
  6. Informal groups within the work plant exercise strong social controls over the work habits and attitudes of the individual worker.
  7. The change from an established society in the home to an adaptive society in the work plant resulting from the use of new techniques tends continually to disrupt the social organization of a work plant and industry generally.
  8. Group collaboration does not occur by accident; it must be planned and developed. If group collaboration is achieved the human relations within a work plant may reach a cohesion which resists the disrupting effects of adaptive society.

Implications of the Hawthorne Studies

            Despite some obvious philosophical, theoretical and methodological limitations by today’s standards of research (Yunker, 1993), the Hawthorne studies did provide some interesting insights that contributed to a better understanding of human behavior in organizations. For instance, one interesting aspect of the Hawthorne studies is the contrasting results obtained in the relay room and the bank wiring room. In the relay room, production continually increased throughout the test period, and the relay assemblers were very positive. The opposite was true in the bank wiring room; blatant restriction of output was practiced by disgruntled workers.

            One clue to this change may be traced to the results of a questionnaire administered to the subjects in the relay room. The original intent of the questions was to determine the health and habits of the workers. Their answers were generally inclusive except that all the operators indicated they felt “better” in the relay test room. A follow-up questionnaire then asked about specific items in the test room situation. In discussions of the Hawthorne studies, the follow-up questionnaire results, in their entirety, usually are not mentioned. Most discussions cite the subjects’ unanimous preference for working in the test room instead of the regular department. Often over-looked, however, are the workers’ explanations for their choice. In order of preference, the workers gave the following reasons for improved productivity:

  1. A small group
  2. Type of supervision
  3. Earnings
  4. Novelty of the situation
  5. Interest in the experiment
  6. Attention received in the test room

            It is important to note that novelty, interest, and attention were relegated to the last. These areas usually are associated with the famous Hawthorne effect. Many social scientists imply that the increases in the relay room productivity can be attributed solely to the fact that the participants in the study were given special attention and that they were enjoying a novel, interesting experience. But to say that all the results of the relay room experiments were due to such an effect on the subjects seems to ignore the important impact of the small group, the type of supervision, and the earnings. All these variables separate the old human relations movement and the modern approach to the field of organizational behavior.

Research in the Field of Organizational Behavior

            The understanding and effective application of organizational behavior depends on a rigorous research methodology. The search for why people behave the way they do is a very delicate and complex process. In fact, problems are so great that many scholars, chiefly from the physical and engineering sciences, argue that there can be no precise science of behavior. They maintain that humans cannot be treated like chemical or physical elements, they cannot be effectively controlled or manipulated. Human variables such as motives, learning, perception, values, and even the Hawthorne effect confound the controls that are attempted. For these reasons, behavioral scientists and researchers are often on defensive (Klahr & Simon, 1999).

            Behavioral science in general compared to the physical and biological sciences is relatively young, and the field of organizational behavioral is even younger. However sufficient research has been carried out in the field, and there is now enough accumulated knowledge that organizational behavior principles can be provided for the effective management of human behavior in organizations. The Hawthorne studies provided a base for further experiments and research in this field. Although the Hawthorne effect did not depend on the particular expectation of the researchers, but that being studied caused the improved performance. This might be because attention made the workers feel better; or because it caused them to reflect on their work and reflection caused performance improvements, or because the experimental situation provided them with performance feedback they didn’t otherwise have and this extra information allowed improvements.

            Research in the field of organizational behavior is continuing unabated. Rosenthal & Jacobson (1968) reported another striking effect on workers being trained on the then new IBM Hollerith punch card machines in the US census bureau. The first group were expected by the inventor to produce 550 per day, and did so but had great difficulty in improving on that. However a second group who were isolated from the expectation were soon doing 2100 per day.

Another study in the field was conducted by John Henry. The John Henry effect (Zdep & Irvine, 1970) is the opposite of the Hawthorne effect: it is when a supposedly control group, that gets no intervention, compares themselves to the experimental group and through extra effort gets the same effects or results. This is a kind of counter-suggestibility as to the findings of the Hawthorne studies.


            With a rich historic background such as the Hawthorne studies, the field of organizational behavior is now an accepted academic discipline. As with any other relatively new academic endeavor, there have been some rough spots and sidetracks along the way. One thing should always be remembered that organization behavior represents the human side of management, not the whole of management. The purpose for the study of organizational behavior is to provide the specific, necessary background and skills to make the managers of today and tomorrow as effective with the conceptual and human dimensions of management as they are proficient in technical, and functional aspects. The Hawthorne studies, though controversial and skeptical, yet they provide a base line and a start point to carry out further research in this important facet of management.


Drucker, Peter, F. (1997, Winter). Toward the New Organization. Leader to Leader, p. 8.

“Hawthorne Experiments.” (2005). Accel Team. Retrieved May 6, 2006, from http://www.accel-team.com/human_relations/hrels_01_mayo.html

Klahr, David & Simon, Herbert. (1999). Studies of Scientific Discovery: Complementary Approaches and Convergent Findings. Psychological Bulletin, 125.5. pp. 524-543.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1968, 1992) Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. Irvington publishers: New York.

Yunker, Gary, W. (1993). An Explanation of Positive and Negative Hawthorne Effects: Evidence from the Relay Assembly Test Room and Bank Wiring Observation Room Studies. Academy of Management Best Papers Proceedings, pp. 179-183.

Zdep, S. M. & Irvine, S. H. (1970). A reverse Hawthorne effect in educational evaluation. Journal of School Psychology 8, pp.89-95.

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