Hawthorne Effect

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Managing and optimizing work productivity from a 'humane' rather than pure 'production machine' perspective. Explanation of the Hawthorne Effect of Mayo. ('32)

Contributed by: Eric Goh See Khai


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Western Electric Hawthorne Work, ChicagoWhat is the Hawthorne Effect? Description

The Hawthorne experiments were a series of studies on the productivity of workers, wherein various conditions were manipulated (pay, light levels, humidity, rest breaks, etc.). Surprisingly, each change resulted in a productivity rising, including eventually a return to the original conditions. This was true of each of the individual workers as well as of the group mean.
Clearly the variables the experimenters manipulated were not the only nor dominant causes of productivity changes. One interpretation, mainly due to Professor Elton Mayo and associates F.J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson, was that essentially, it was the workers' feeling they were being closely attended to which was the cause of the improvements in performance. This is now referred to as "the Hawthorne effect".

Thus these experiments were among the first indications that any productivity model must factor in intangible attributes such as human behavior.

It's important to understand two more concepts to understand the Hawthorne Effect properly and accurately. The Yerkes-Dockson Law and the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. While motivation does increase productivity up to a certain point, any more motivation (example salary) would not be effective due to saturation of utility. Thus, one must not rely solely on the Hawthorne model to raise productivity but rather complement it skillfully with other motivation attributes, like job redesign, job enlargement, and raising production capability via means such as learning organization culture.

Related to the Hawthorne effects are:

  • The Pygmalion Effect. This refers to self-fulfilling prophecy situations in which students performed better than other students simply because they were expected to do so by their teachers.
  • The Placebo Effect. This is the phenomenon that a patient's symptoms can be alleviated by an otherwise ineffective treatment, apparently because the individual expects or believes that it will work. This effect can be dealt with by using double-blind trials.

The Hawthorne Experiments. History

The Hawthorne Effects are a series of experiments conducted from 1924 to 1933, and famously analyzed by Professor Elton Mayo from 1927 to 1932. The term Hawthorne was coined as the site for the experimental studies took place at Western Electric Hawthorne Work, Chicago. The experiments were primarily started with the intention of studying the relationship between productivity and work conditions vis--vis examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and then moved on to the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership).

Calculation of the Hawthorne Effect. Formula

There is no definitive quantitative formula as the important attributes for working conditions varied greatly from place to place and industry to industry. However, a suggested generic approach that transcends all industries is to apply the Yorkes-Dockson Law, that there is an optimal amount of motivation for the maximum productivity. Any lesser motivation or more would result in a drop of productivity. Thus: y = -ax2 + bx + c. (y= productivity, x= working environment attributes).

Usage of the Hawthorne Experiments. Applications

  • Factory Environments. Example: an assembly plant.
  • Design / Creative Industries. Example: a draftsman.
  • Education / Services Sector. Example: a nurse.

Steps in the Hawthorne Effect. Process

  1. Identify the working environment attributes that affect productivity, Example: x1, x2 ...xn etc.
  2. Rank the attributes and select critical attributes based on Pareto analysis. Example: x1, x2, x3 (say 3 important attributes only)
  3. Among the management, assign weights to the identified critical attributes (say w1, w2, w3). Define the model, y = -ax2 + bx + c. (y= productivity, x= final weighted input)
  4. Model the final weighted input as x = w1*x1 + w2*x2 + w3*x3
  5. Input in the formula: y = -ax2 + bx + c

Strengths of the Hawthorne Experiments. Benefits

  • The method allows clear identification of the concerns of the workers.
  • It solves productivity issues in a sustainable and long term basis, if it is properly and accurately modeled.
  • It brings forth consistency in the assessment of the working situation when management needs to carry out long term envisioning.

Limitations of the Hawthorne Effect. Disadvantages

  • Difficult to identify the critical working environment attributes as some are intrinsic like organization dynamics etc.
  • Quantification of the parameters, a, b and c of the productivity model is also very subjective and depends on the discernment of the manager.
  • Critical working attributes are dynamic and model needs to be updated constantly to reflect actual 'ground' situation.
  • On the whole, the accuracy of the productivity model is highly correlated on the judgment and the acumen of the manager.

Assumptions of the Hawthorne Effect. Conditions

  • Important working attributes can be captured sufficiently.
  • No hidden or tacit informal knowledge is withheld.

Book: Bailey - Human Performance Engineering -

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Compare with Hawthorne Effect: Hierarchy of Needs  |  Two Factor Theory  |  Theory of Needs  |  Theory X Theory Y  |  ERG Theory  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Path-Goal Theory  |  Attribution Theory

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