Hawthorne Studies

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Hawthorne Studies

a series of investigations into workers' attitudes and behaviour conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s at Western Electric Company's plant at Hawthorne, Chicago, which provided the empirical underpinning for the management approach known as HUMAN RELATIONS. The research programme had four main stages. In the first (inconclusive) experiments the researchers tested the effect of environmental factors, such as the quality of lighting, on worker productivity. The suspicion that social factors may have been an important intervening variable led to the second stage. Here six women were placed in the Relay Assembly Test Room and a set of changes were made to their working conditions, such as alterations to the duration of work-breaks. Somewhat oddly output rose throughout the experiments even when conditions were restored to their pre-experimental state. The only consistent variable seemed to be the presence of the researcher in the test room. From this was derived the so-called Hawthorne Effect -that people behave differently when they know they are under observation. Human relations writing further suggested that the observer had acted as a quasi-supervisor and had stimulated a growth in output by:
  1. showing interest in the workforce and thereby increasing JOB SATISFACTION; and
  2. helping the women to cohere as an effective team.

The third stage was a large scale programme of interviews (about 10,000) with workers, which found that employees were more complex social beings than had been assumed in management theory to date. Following on from this the fourth stage involved the observation of a work GROUP in the Bank Wiring Observation Room. Here it was found that an informal policy of restricting output was in operation. For the researchers this showed the importance of group influences on individual behaviour and how this could frustrate managerial objectives.

Overall human relations theory claimed that the Hawthorne studies showed that people were social beings, who both developed and were influenced by social networks out of a need to belong to a community. The task for management was to understand these processes and to intervene to mould them in the organization's favour. Whether this is the correct interpretation of the studies is open to question. The Hawthorne studies suffered from methodological weaknesses and, contrary to their conclusions, their data provides some evidence that financial incentives rather than social pressures are the main influence on worker behaviour. See SOCIOLOGY OF WORK.

Collins Dictionary of Business, 3rd ed. © 2002, 2005 C Pass, B Lowes, A Pendleton, L Chadwick, D O’Reilly and M Afferson
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