Refers to an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important. This principle speaks to the importance of organizations measuring outcomes. The fact that individuals' behaviors may be altered because they know they are being studied was demonstrated in a research project (1927–1932) of the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. This series of research, first led by Harvard Business School professor, Elton Mayo, along with associates, F.J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson, started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership). The ideas that this team developed about the social dynamics of groups in the work setting has had a lasting influence on the collection of data, labor-management relations, and informal interaction among factory employees.
The major finding of the study was that, almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of the workers seemed to improve. One reasonable conclusion is that the workers were pleased to receive attention from the researchers, who expressed an interest in them. The study was expected to last only one year but, because the researchers were set back each time they tried to relate the manipulated physical conditions to the worker’s efficiency, the project extended out to five years.
Four general conclusions were drawn from the Hawthorne studies:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The workplace is a social system. The Hawthorne researchers came to view the workplace as a social system made up of interdependent parts.
For decades, the Hawthorne studies provided the rationale for human relations within the organization. Then two researchers used a new procedure called "time-series analyses." Using the original variables and factoring in the Great Depression, as well as an instance of a managerial discipline in which two insubordinate and mediocre workers were replaced by two different productive workers (one of whom took the role of "straw boss"—see note below), they discovered that production was most affected by the replacement of the two workers. This was due to their greater productivity and the effect of the disciplinary action on the other workers. The occurrence of the Depression also encouraged job productivity, perhaps through the increased importance of jobs and the fear of losing them. Rest periods and a group incentive plan also had a somewhat positive smaller effect on productivity. These variables accounted for almost all the variation in productivity during the experimental period. Social science may have been too ready to embrace the original Hawthorne interpretations, since it was looking for theories or work motivation that were more humane and democratic.
Note: Hay is dried grass, sometimes with a little alfalfa thrown in, used as feed for horses and cattle. Straw, on the other hand, is the stalks of wheat or other grains left over after harvesting the good parts, and is used primarily for livestock bedding. Since straw is a by-product of the real business of a farm, a "straw boss" is not the "big boss" of any job, but rather, an assistant or subordinate boss, usually on the level of the foreman of a work crew. It now is a metaphor for any low-level supervisor. And, since straw bosses rarely wield any real power aside from the ability to make those under them miserable, "straw boss" today often is a synonym for a petty and vindictive superior.
SOURCE: Franke, RH & Kaul, JD, "The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation." American Sociological Review, 1978, 43, 623-643, also at http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/history/hawthorne.html