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The Many Lessons of the Hawthorne Experiments
by Wally Bock

In 1924, MIT professor Vannevar Bush began a series of experiments at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works, in Cicero, IL. He wanted to test the impact of specific changes in the work environment on the output of the workers.

The first study was the Illumination Study. Researchers turned up the lights. Productivity went up.

"Aha!" thought the researchers. They turned down the lights. Productivity went up.

This was not what anyone expected. Bush and his team ultimately decided that the simple fact of being paid attention to accounted for the changes in output.

In 1927, Elton Mayo and his colleagues showed up at the Hawthorne Works to conduct a second set of experiments. Their first round was called The Relay Assembly Test Room Experiments. This time they isolated a group of six women with established production rates. The women produced, on average, 2400 telephone relays a week.

Over the next five years, the researchers tried twenty-three different changes in the working environment to see what would happen. Productivity went up. And up. And up. By the end of the first round of experiments, it appeared that changes in the physical environment had no affect on productivity.

But absenteeism in the isolated group was a third of that for the entire plant. And the production of relays averaged 3000 per week per worker. Other interesting things happened as well.

As the experiment went on the women acted more and more like a team. The experimenters allowed them a say in how things were done and what variables might be changed. This "team" impact was demonstrated in another way in the final phase of Mayo's experiments.

In 1931, Mayo and his colleagues began the Bank Wiring Observation Room Experiment. The idea was to study the effects of incentive pay for increased production. The researchers announced the incentives. Production stayed the same.

The men in the group had an established their own idea of a "fair day's work." They didn't trust the researchers. So they simply held down production to the level they thought was in their best interest. Workers who violated the group's production norms were ridiculed and, sometimes, sabotaged.

The Hawthorne experiments are significant because they represent the first time that human researchers took a look at the human factors involved in work. That isn't how they started out, though. They started out to do experiments building on the ideas of Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management.

They went in believing that there was a "one best way" to perform any task or function. They went in believing that workers would use that best way if they were offered financial incentives for increased production. They came out understanding that it's more complex than that.

Lots of people have drawn lots of lessons from the classic Hawthorne experiments. Here are mine.

Work is a social function. While most of the writing about work before the Hawthorne experiments discussed work as an economic function, these experiments established the fact that friendships, personal satisfaction, culture and social norms were subjects worth study. Who we work with and how appears to be more important than environmental factors like lighting.

Groups are multipliers. In the Relay Assembly Test Room, the group, working together increased production. In the Bank Wiring Observation Room group norms worked against any production increase. Groups have an impact on how hard and how well members work.

Trust is a big deal. One big difference between the Relay Assembly Test Room and the Bank Wiring Observation Room groups was that one trusted the researchers and the other did not. In the Relay Assembly Test Room, average production increased by 25 percent without need for incentives. In the Bank Wiring Observation Room incentives had no affect on group trust or performance.

People like other people to pay attention to them. The Illumination Experiments seem to establish that simply paying attention to people has a positive effect. More recent studies have established that paying attention by giving feedback is even more powerful.

People want the maximum control possible over their work life. Without a supervisor, the women in the Relay Assembly Test Room organized their work in more effective ways and cooperated to increase production.

The Hawthorne Experiments started out as one more experiment based Taylor's Scientific Management theories that assumed workers were rational economic actors. But the experiments broke that paradigm and opened up whole new lines of research on social factors, intrinsic rewards, and motivation that we're still learning from.

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale, as well as deal with the challenges of massive Boomer retirements. Wally coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the US and elsewhere.

You can find out more about Wally and his work at his Three Star Leadership web site ( This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog (

Wally Bock may be contacted at or


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