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The Hawthorne Effect: The Study of Employee Productivity

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Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

The Hawthorne effect describes changes in study participant's behavior in response to being observed by the study conductors. Explore the legacies of the studies of employee productivity from which the Hawthorne effect got its name. Updated: 08/13/2021

Social Context of Work Environments

Meet Tom. He is a young college graduate who was hired at Trekkie Technology about six months ago. Tom is miserable at Trekkie because he cannot stand the people that he works with. Jim is arrogant, Mary is a constant complainer, Sarah spends more time gossiping than working and Tom's boss, Bill, is never around when Tom needs him. Instead of focusing on his job, Tom spends much of his workday distracted, trying to keep his emotions in check so that he does not tell his coworkers what he really thinks of them. Needless to say, Tom avoids these people at all costs, which is relatively easy due to his coworkers' preoccupations with themselves and others keeping them away from their desks.

Meet Jenny. She was in Tom's graduating class but is employed at The Force Technology, a direct competitor of Trekkie Technology. Unlike Tom, Jenny loves her job, especially because of the people she works with. Jenny has always found The Force to be a great place to work because her coworkers and manager are supportive and work together to help each other succeed. Jenny's manager, Irene, considers herself a part of the team and even shares the same workspace as her subordinates. Jenny is able to focus on her work and ask questions when needed and is highly productive as a result.

What makes Tom and Jenny so different? They both graduated from the same school. They both work for technology companies. However, what is clearly different is the social context in which they perform their work. Tom works in a distracting, negative work environment, whereas Jenny works in a supportive and inspiring work environment. Productivity is directly affected by these work environments. For Tom, productivity is diminished, but for Jenny productivity increases.

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  • 2:14 Hawthorne Effect
  • 3:35 Hawthorne Studies
  • 5:46 Hawthorne Studies' Legacy
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The Hawthorne Effect

The correlation between the social context of a workplace environment and employee productivity can best be understood by examining the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect is a psychological phenomenon in which participants in a study may change their behavior or performance in response to being observed by the individual conducting the study.

The term 'Hawthorne effect' was derived from the location where the phenomenon was first witnessed during a series of experiments: Hawthorne, Illinois. What are commonly known as 'the Hawthorne experiments' consisted of two studies conducted at the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works, just outside of Chicago, from 1924 to 1932. The Hawthorne studies were designed to find ways to increase worker productivity.

Up until this point, the focus of increasing productivity in workers was based on Frederick Taylor's work in finding the best possible way to perform a task and using financial rewards as incentives to increase employee motivation. The Hawthorne experiments were along those same lines.

The Hawthorne Experiments

The first experiment, conducted by a group of engineers, looked at what effects lighting levels had on employee performance at Western Electric. The results of the study showed that even as lighting levels decreased, employee performance continued to increase - that is, until the workers could no longer see, after which productivity naturally declined. Essentially, the experiment showed that productivity increased as lighting decreased, which was not what the experimenters expected.

Mayo and Roethlisberger conducted the second Hawthorne experiment
The Hawthorne Studies Authors

The second experiment was conducted a few years later by Elton Mayo and Fritz J. Roethlisberger, who supervised a group of five women in a bank writing room. As part of the experiment, the women were given special privileges such as periodic breaks from work, free lunches and pay increase incentives. This study also resulted in increased employee performance.

Mayo and Roethlisberger did not attribute the increased performance to the special privileges; rather, they concluded that the increased levels of productivity were a result of the supervisory arrangement. That is, because the experiment placed the observers in close proximity to the five women being observed, the interest in the workers on the part of the observers is what increased the five women's motivation to modify performance. The five women wanted to be seen as high performers by the observers.

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