Hawthorne Studies in Management: Summary & Conclusions

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  • 1:00 The Hawthorne Effect
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Almost a century ago, researchers at a manufacturing plant in Illinois observed a principle of employee behavior that is as true and applicable today as it was then. In this lesson, you'll learn about that principle and its effect in business.

What Were the Hawthorne Studies?

In the late 1920s, managers at Hawthorne Works - a large manufacturer operating in Illinois - asked themselves this question: Are our employees more productive in a well-lit environment than they are in a poorly-lit environment? This was really the beginning of the quality revolution in American business, and questions that now seem simple to us now had to be answered.

What Did the Hawthorne Studies Discover?

To answer their question, managers at Hawthorne Works hired some consultants and commissioned a study. Their findings are probably what you would expect. Well-lit lighting increased productivity, as did a few other variables, such as having a clean workstation, allowing employees to build and work in teams, and having regular breaks. While these were the direct findings from the Hawthorne study, none of them were groundbreaking. But the researchers made another observation - one that led to an idea taught in nearly every business textbook used in the last 70 years.

The Hawthorne Effect

During the Hawthorne study, when researchers adjusted an independent variable, the variable that can be manipulated to measure its impact on another dependent variable, productivity changed. But, after a relatively short time, those productivity gains disappeared and output ended up drifting back to the previous level. The conclusion was that changes in the work environment could impact productivity, but those productivity gains are only short term. Like any good researcher would, those working with Hawthorne Works scratched their heads and asked why.

Their answer became known as the Hawthorne effect and is the same principle that leads most drivers to slow down when they see a cop. Like the speeder reacting when seeing a cop, the participants of the Hawthorne Works study changed their behavior because they were receiving attention, but once that attention was gone, they reverted to their 'normal' behavior.

Examples of the Hawthorne Effect in Business

We can see examples of the Hawthorne effect in business every day. If a single promotion opportunity becomes available, those in the organization that want the promotion will change their behaviors: perhaps work a little harder, stay a little later, or try to stand out a little more.

Once the promotion is given, those that didn't get it will likely return to their previous behavior. They know they are being watched while the promotion decision is being made, so they improve their performance - but most of the time, it's only a temporary change. The same thing happens during any period of performance appraisal.

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