Article (April-2018)


The Hawthorne Effect : A precursor to employee productivity

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick

Designation : -   Associate Professor and Head HR and OB

Organization : -  Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning In Management (EIILM), Kolkata


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The Hawthorne effect is named after what was one of the most famous experiments (or, more accurately, series of experiments) in industrial history. It marked a sea change in thinking about work and productivity. Previous studies, in particular Frederick Taylor's influential ideas, had focused on the individual and on ways in which an individual's performance could be improved. Hawthorne set the individual in a social context, establishing that the performance of employees is influenced by their surroundings and by the people that they are working with as much as by their own innate abilities.
This laid the foundation for what we call employee engagement today. It's a known fact that engaged employees are the most productive ones. The experiments took place at Western Electric's factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They were conducted for the most part under the supervision of Elton Mayo, an Australian-born sociologist who eventually became a professor of industrial research at Harvard.
The original purpose of the experiments was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity. Two groups of workers in the Hawthorne factory were used as guinea pigs. One day the lighting in the work area for one group was improved dramatically while the other group's lighting remained unchanged. The researchers were surprised to find that the productivity of the more highly illuminated workers increased much more than that of the control group.
The employees' working conditions were changed in other ways too (their working hours, rest breaks and so on), and in all cases their productivity improved when a change was made. Indeed, their productivity even improved when the lights were dimmed again. By the time everything had been returned to the way it was before the changes had begun, productivity at the factory was at its highest level. Absenteeism had plummeted.
The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers' productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place. However, Mayo's experiment has been evaluated differently by different researchers. Many people with a conflicting point of view say that the increase in productivity level was because of the fact that the employees knew they were being observed and that they had to perform better.
Yes, it is a fact that whenever a group of employees are separated from the team and given extra attention and priority, they are likely to perform better. But does that mean that organizations can follow it as a regular practice? Will that not amount to discrimination against others?
However, despite all criticism, what the Hawthorne effect establishes is that employees, be it in the 1920s or a hundred years later, want to be heard and valued. That is what increases their motivation level, and the final outcome is enhanced productivity. Happier employees are more productive employees. This is a fact that is backed up by research. In 2014, in a paper titled 'Happiness and Productivity', researchers from the University of Warwick found that happier employees were 12 percent more productive than employees who weren't. Increased productivity has a direct effect on revenues and the bottom line, thus making companies more competitive.
Happy workplaces lead to emotionally stable employees, who in turn become engaged employees, and they in turn are usually, the most productive employees. Unencumbered by negative emotions, they are free to express, and more importantly, to innovate. Happiness is a chimera in most workplaces because of the constant pressure to perform, keep up with peers, impress bosses and secure the next raise. Finding ways to make and keep employees happy should be an imperative for top management. Here are a few ways in which the 'Hawthorne Effect' can be used in today's workplaces.

1. Listening is important
The Hawthorne effect established that the productivity of employees increased dramatically when they felt they were being heard. In fact, this is a great lesson for today's leadership, who need to give a patient hearing to their team members.
It's important to appreciate ideas and many start-up organisations have benefitted from this where younger employees were heard and their ideas appreciated. People are mainly motivated not by economic factors, but emotional factors, such as a feeling of being involved and receiving attention. It is important for employees to feel that their concerns are being heard and that they are contributing to a common purpose.
2. Observation over vigilance
The Hawthorne effect established that employees tend to perform better when they are being observed. But it has different connotations in the modern workplace. Employees hate being under vigilance 24x7, but yes, they want to be observed. They want the leaders to take notice of their good work, and be appreciated for the same, without being watched all the time. Paying attention to what employees are doing brings in some wonderful results.
3. Right people in the right group
Employees who are usually productive can become unproductive when placed in the wrong group. At the same time, attentive and communicated mindfulness of how others are working may have a positive impact on their engagement and increase productivity. During the Hawthorne experiment, two insubordinate and mediocre workers were replaced by two productive workers, of which one took on the role of straw boss. They discovered that production increased by the replacement of the two workers, due to their greater productivity and the effect of the disciplinary action on the other workers.
4. Gender diversity
Women are increasingly entering male - dominated professions. However, they are often made to feel unwanted by male peers, which lead to low productivity. Employers need to be observant and bring in small changes to make the environment more conducive. The individual attention and the normal human instinct to feel 'chosen' will skew the results.
5. God of small things
Organisations need to realise that the tools used for motivation don't need to be in the form of 'big' things. Sometimes, small changes work wonders in improving productivity.
The Hawthorne experiments marked a significant step forward in human behavior and are regarded as one of the most important social science investigations and said to be the foundations of relations approach to management and the development of organizational behavior. Managers are to be aware of the criticism evolved through years on such a study before adopting it. In my opinion, the Hawthorne effect is a validated theory and could be applied within the organisation, though care is to be taken and a limit is to be set. The use of team groups is acceptable as it creates a caring factor between workers and competitively amongst other teams. Supervisors are to keep their role and limit socializing with staff on the shop floor to always keep their role and hence standards are always kept to the maximum. Team meeting are to be held which allows the worker to give out his opinion and feel important by contributing his ideas to the organisation.
Whichever management structure an organisation is to adopt, regular reviews are to be carried out in order to keep a stable output and good standard in quality. Such a strategy will ensure continuous evolution of the organizational management and a successful organization producing maximum efficiency in its produce.