Mayo's Hawthorne Experiments

George Elton Mayo was in charge of certain experiments on human behaviour carried out at the Hawthorne Works of the General Electric Company in Chicago between 1924 and 1927. His research findings have contributed to organization development in terms of human relations and motivation theory.


Flowing from the findings of these investigations he came to certain conclusions as follows:

         Work is a group activity.

         The social world of the adult is primarily patterned about work activity.

         The need for recognition, security and sense of belonging is more important in determining workers' morale and productivity than the physical conditions under which he works.

         A complaint is not necessarily an objective recital of facts; it is commonly a symptom manifesting disturbance of an individual's status position.

         The worker is a person whose attitudes and effectiveness are conditioned by social demands from both inside and outside the work plant.

         Informal groups within the work plant exercise strong social controls over the work habits and attitudes of the individual worker.

         The change from an established society in the home to an adaptive society in the work plant resulting from the use of new techniques tends continually to disrupt the social organization of a work plant and industry generally.

         Group collaboration does not occur by accident; it must be planned and developed. If group collaboration is achieved the human relations within a work plant may reach a cohesion which resists the disrupting effects of adaptive society.


The details

Variables Affecting Productivity

Specifically, Mayo wanted to find out what effect fatigue and monotony had on job productivity and how to control them through such variables as rest breaks, work hours, temperature and humidity. In the process, he stumbled upon a principle of human motivation that would help to revolutionize the theory and practice of management.

Mayo took six women from the assembly line, segregated them from the rest of the factory and put them under the eye of a supervisor who was more a friendly observer than disciplinarian. Mayo made frequent changes in their working conditions, always discussing and explaining the changes in advance.

He changed the hours in the working week, the hours in the workday the number of rest breaks. the time of the lunch hour. Occasionally, he would return the women to their original, harder working conditions.

Relay Assembly

The investigators selected two girls for their second series of experiments and asked them to choose another four girls, thus making a small group of six. The group was employed in assembling telephone relays - a relay being a small but intricate mechanism composed of about forty separate parts which had to be assembled by the girls seated at a lone bench and dropped into a chute when completed.

The relays were mechanically counted as they slipped down the chute. It was intended that the basic rate of production should be noted at the start, and that subsequently changes would be introduced, the effectiveness of which would be measured by increased or decreased production of the relays.

Feedback mechanism

Through out the series of experiments, an observer sat with the girls in the workshop noting all that went on, keeping the girls informed about the experiment, asking for advice or information, and listening to their complaints.

The experiment began by introducing various changes, each of which was continued for a test period of four to twelve weeks. The results of these changes are as follows:

Conditions and results

Under normal conditions with a forty eight hour week, including Saturdays, and no rest pauses. The girls produced 2,400 relays a week each.

         They were then put on piece-work for eight weeks.

         Output went up

         Two five minute rest pauses, morning and afternoon, were introduced for a period of five weeks.

         Output went up once more

         The rest pauses were lengthened to ten minutes each.

         Output went up sharply.

         Six five minute pauses were introduced, and the girls complained that their work rhythm was broken by the frequent pauses.

         Output fell slightly

         Return to the two rest pauses, the first with a hot meal supplied by the Company free of charge.

         Output went up

         The girls were dismissed at 4.30 p.m. instead of 5.00 p.m.

         Output went up

         They were dismissed at 4.00 p.m.

         Output remained the same

         Finally, all the improvements were taken away, and the girls went back to the physical conditions of the beginning of the experiment: work on Saturday, 48 hour week, no rest pauses, no piece work and no free meal. This state of affairs lasted for a period of 12 weeks.

         Output was the highest ever recorded averaging 3000 relays a week.

What happened during the experiments

What happened was that six individuals became a team and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to co-operation in the experiment. The consequence was that they felt themselves to be participating freely and without afterthought and were happy in the knowledge that they were working without coercion from above or limitation from below.

They were themselves satisfied at the consequence for they felt that they were working under less pressure than ever before. In fact regular medical checks showed no signs of cumulative fatigue and absence from work declined by 80 per cent.

It was noted too, that each girl had her own technique of putting the component parts of the relay together - sometimes she varied this technique in order to avoid monotony and it was found that the more intelligent the girl, the greater was the number of variations (similar to McClelland's research findings into achievement motivated people.)

The experimental group had considerable freedom of movement. They were not pushed around or bossed by anyone. Under these conditions they developed an increased sense of responsibility and instead of discipline from higher authority being imposed, it came from within the group itself.


The findings

To his amazement, Elton Mayo discovered a general upward trend in production, completely independent of any of the changes he made.


His findings didn't mesh with the then current theory (see F.W. Taylor) of the worker as motivated solely by self-interest. It didn't make sense that productivity would continue to rise gradually when he cut out breaks and returned the women to longer working hours.


Mayo began to look around and realized that the women, exercising a freedom they didn't have on the factory floor, had formed a social atmosphere that also included the observer who tracked their productivity. The talked, they joked. they began to meet socially outside of work.


Mayo had discovered a fundamental concept that seems obvious today. Workplaces are social environments and within them, people are motivated by much more than economic self-interest He concluded that all aspects of that industrial environment carried social value.


When the women were singled out from the rest of the factory workers, it raised their self-esteem. When they were allowed to have a friendly relationship with their supervisor. they felt happier at work. When he discussed changes in advance with them, they felt like part of the team.


He had secured their cooperation and loyalty; it explained why productivity rose even when he took away their rest breaks.


The power of the social setting and peer group dynamics became even more obvious to Mayo in a later part of the Hawthorne Studies, when he saw the flip side of his original experiments. A group of 14 men who participated in a similar study restricted production because they were distrustful of the goals of the project.


The portion of the Hawthorne Studies that dwelt on the positive effects of benign supervision and concern for workers that made them feel like part of a team became known as the Hawthorne Effect; the studies themselves spawned the human relations school of management that is constantly being recycled in new forms today, witness quality circles, participatory management, team building, et al.

Incidentally, the Hawthorne Works the place where history was made, is history now itself. Western Electric closed it in 1983.


The Hawthorne effect today

In the training world, the Hawthorne Effect is a chameleon. Ask several trainers and you'll probably get several definitions, most of them legitimate and all of them true to some aspect of the original experiments by Elton Mayo, in Chicago that produced the term.


It has been described as the rewards you reap when you pay attention to people. The mere act of showing people that you're concerned about them usually spurs them to better job performance.

That's the Hawthorne Effect.

The Hawthorne Effect at Work

Suppose you've taken a management trainee and given her specialized training in management skills she doesn't now possess. Without saving a word, you've given the trainee the feeling that she is so valuable to the organization that you'll spend time and money to develop her skills. She feels she's on a track to the top, and that motivates her to work harder and better. The motivation is independent of any particular skills or knowledge she may have gained from the training session. That's the Hawthorne Effect at work.


In a way, the Hawthorne Effect can be construed as an enemy of the modern trainer. Carrying the theory to the edges of cynicism, some would say it doesn't make any difference what you teach because the Hawthorne Effect will produce the positive outcome you want.

A Sense of Belonging?

How do you respond to executives who denigrate training and credit the Hawthorne Effect when productivity rises? So what? Effective training performs a dual function: It educates people and it strokes them. And there's nothing wrong with using the Hawthorne Effect to reach this other training goal. In fact, the contention is that about 50% of any successful training session can be attributed to the Hawthorne Effect.


The Hawthorne Effect has also been called the 'Somebody Upstairs Cares' syndrome. It's not as simplistic as the ideal popular under the human relations craze over recent years that you just have to be nice to workers. It's more than etiquette.


When people spend a large portion of their time at work, they must have a sense of belonging, of being part of a team. When they do, they produce better. That's the Hawthorne Effect.


One often hears a different interpretation of the Hawthorne Effect. George Orwell would understand this version; it has a Big Brother ring that?s far less benign than other definitions. People use it when they talk about workers under the eye of the supervisor.


If someone should subtly observe workers on the job to see if they truly apply new procedures they've learned in a training course. Occasionally, managers object saying that observation isn't a valid test Of course they'll do a good job if you're watching them, they tell her. Isn't that the Hawthorne Effect? Well not exactly.