Walking through snow to get to work

Joe MacDonagh on the Hawthorne Studies – the origins of modern organisational research.

According to Roethlisberger & Dickson (1939), ‘Management should commit itself to the continuous process of studying human situations – both individual and group – and should run its human affairs in terms of what it is continually learning about its own organisation.’ 

I first came across the Hawthorne Studies as an undergraduate when my late stepfather, an engineer who had previously worked in American industry for many years, pointed out their importance in understanding people’s motivation to work. He said that the Hawthorne Studies, ground-breaking and extensive research carried out between 1924 and 1932, had highlighted how someone would walk five miles through snow to get to work if they enjoyed what they did. Fast-forward to the cold spell of March 2018, and I see a hospital head nurse say on the BBC that her colleagues had done just that. Of course, the opposite is also the case – people are more likely to resign or be absent from work if they are unhappy there. Current research, such as my own with Orla Byrne, often terms this engagement, which is linked to organisational citizenship behaviour and workplace motivation.

Most readers’ knowledge of the Hawthorne Studies is likely to be around the supposed Hawthorne effect. But this neglects the full range of studies and experiments carried out over an eight-year spell. I will argue that the Hawthorne Studies have had a profound influence on modern workplace research, much of which now takes for granted a worker-based focus on discovering the feelings and needs of employees. I will also show how the studies have been critiqued (e.g. Chiesa & Hobbs, 2008; Jarrett, 2008) and re-interpreted (Hassard, 2012). And I’ll consider how many management and organisational textbooks neglect to critique the studies’ lack of explanation of the economic and cultural context at that time, and the strong political and anti-union views of many of the researchers.

The background
Historically, the Hawthorne Studies were conducted at a time when the scientific management teachings of F.W. Taylor held great sway. These theories influenced Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line by providing a template for the careful measurement of worker effort and productivity. Taylor’s theories also suggested that workers should be closely guided by specially trained managers. This perhaps led to a ‘command and control’ mentality, where being in charge and being obeyed were paramount for managers and supervisors. But these decades after the First World War were reflective, with many researchers asking how we could make the world a better and happier place. Many textbooks now say that the Hawthorne Studies ended up discovering the importance of workplace groups and the social nature of work, setting the scene for the modern worker-centred approach.

The Hawthorne Studies took place in the Hawthorne Works of Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois, USA – a suburb of Chicago.The Western Electric factory employed over 20,000 workers, on a scale we can now only imagine… technologisation and computerisation has reduced substantially the number of men and women needed in such factories.

The management in the Western Electric Company were probably only too happy to accept the offer from Harvard University, in the form of Elton Mayo, to carry out this research. It promised greater worker efficiencies, through Mayo’s team testing then current theories on worker efficiency. Mayo initiated the study and oversaw its progress, but most of the work on site was conducted by the main researchers in the study – Felix Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson (Mayo, 1933; Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939).

Seeing the light
Before the formal start of the Hawthorne Studies in 1927, C.E. Snow had conducted studies beginning in 1924 into the effects of workplace illumination and worker fatigue (Snow, 1927). The researchers examined how levels of workplace light affected worker productivity. To set that in context, working days were long (significantly longer than the average 40-hour week we now have), the provision of worker canteens (subsidised or otherwise) was not commonplace, and health and safety legislation existed in only very basic form. The emphasis was on how costs could be reduced and how employees could be made to work more productively. Whether they were happy doing so or not was not an employer concern. To be fair to the Western Electric Company, they did provide a workplace canteen, they had an educational programme for their workers and some would say that their participation in this workplace research showed their enlightened nature as employers.

In the first illumination study they tested whether better illumination led to greater productivity – with the experimental group having raised illumination in their workplace and the control group having the same level throughout. Productivity improved for both groups, even in a series of experiments in which the experimental group’s lighting variously increased and decreased. The researchers sensed that this was not the effect of illumination, but the fact that both groups were being observed.

After this first study Harvard University became involved, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund their research. In 1927, to examine further the effect of workers being more productive irrespective of what light condition they experienced, the researchers decided to separate six female workers and had them work in the Relay Room, by themselves and away from other workers. The Relay Room experiments allowed the women a great deal of latitude to move around and to communicate with their fellow workers, which was a change from the highly regulated work environment previously. Simultaneously, the researchers adjusted work rates, rest periods and finishing times. Again, the researchers recorded steady increases in worker productivity.

The researchers believed there was another important effect going on, which they believed contributed to the high worker productivity. They believed that the female workers felt that their work was valued as it was being observed by the researchers. This resulted in low absenteeism, seemingly higher motivation and good relationships between the women and their supervisor.

This was the so-called ‘Hawthorne effect’, which had been first identified by C.E. Snow and his team between 1924 and 1927. I say ‘so-called’ because it was first given this label by another researcher in 1950 (French, 1950), and because some dispute the findings. The main critiques of the effect say that a simpler explanation for the increase in productivity was that it was lower at the start of the week, and steadily improved as the workers moved towards the weekend. Also, some (e.g. Chiesa & Hobbs, 2008) question the replacement of two test subjects during the course of the Relay Room study, saying that this may have skewed the productivity figures. Overall, the critique goes, the effect observed was not for workers receiving more attention.

The interview programme
At this point the researchers believed that there might be something more at play than the power of managerial attention to increase worker productivity. They wished to investigate the importance of worker interaction, as the Relay Room experiment had shown that workers were very positively influenced by the presence of other workers. To that point workplace studies tended to concentrate on individual worker productivity and not on the social context of work.

Thus the researchers embarked on the next stage of their research, from 1928, on an interview programme (Dickson & Roethlisberger, 1966). They conducted individual interviews with employees about their work and their lives in an attempt to discern what was important to them and what motivated them in their jobs. By modern standards the scale of the interviews, involving 21,000 workers, was extraordinary.

In the interview programme the Harvard researchers discovered that groups were a very important factor in the motivation of the Western Electric workers. If a worker was happy with their group, it had an important bearing on their work, but groups could potentially be a negative force in a worker’s life. This led them to conduct the final experiment, the Bank Wiring Observation Room Study, in which they secretly observed male workers.

Wired up
Did employees in the initial studies change their behaviour, perhaps to be more socially acceptable, because they knew they were being observed? In the final study, from 1931 to 1932, in order to ensure that the 14 male workers in two work groups engaged in natural workplace behaviours, they were secretly observed wiring telephone banks. The ethicality of this, in which permission to participate was not obtained from the workers, is a discussion for another article.

The researchers quickly found that ‘informal leaders’, not necessarily appointed by management, were crucial to understanding the groups’ dynamics. They, rather than the formal leaders, often determined the group work rate and were central to the norms and rules operated by the group. The groups often policed themselves, and management guidelines were not always observed. If a group member transgressed these informal group norms, then they might – if they did not change their behaviour – first be mildly admonished, then be subject to verbal abuse, and finally, if still not observing the norms, be hit with a tool such as a spanner.

Any of us who have worked in factories, in industrial workplaces or even in an office can see that there are many informal groups, often outside the organisational hierarchy. These groups often have identities and codes of behaviour that are observed and enforced. The Hawthorne Studies was one of the first large-scale research studies to point this out.

Still relevant today
Hassard’s critique of the Hawthorne Studies points out that Elton Mayo held right-wing and anti-trade union views and wanted to find ways to structure the workplace to reduce union membership and strike action. Hassard suggests that this affected Roethlisberger and his colleagues, and that the idea that they were dispassionate Harvard researchers, merely interested in the research data, is incorrect. He suggests that they bought into the paternalist and unitarist attitudes of Western Electric: that owners should be the only legitimate source of power; and that it was their prerogative to enhance workplace benefits, or not. Methodologically, Hassard suggests that Mayo and nearly all of the other major researchers neglected to account for the largely multi-ethnic workforce and the evolving role of women in the plant. Hassard also cites Bendix’s 1956 book Work and Authority in Industry in saying that other studies had already pointed out the importance of the social nature of work. O’Connor (1999) also posits that Mayo and his colleagues used the interviews to ‘adjust the fundamentally maladjusted worker to the demands of industrial life’ – this maladjustment being, in their minds, anyone who disagreed with management, was pro-trade union or who considered strike action.

These critiques are reasonable, though they are in a small minority compared to the large number of textbooks, monographs and journal articles that refer positively to the Hawthorne effect and the Hawthorne Studies as a whole. What does strike me about the largely pro-Hawthorne articles is that many of the authors do not seem to have returned to the original texts, instead relying on secondary commentaries.

The sheer number and size of original and related texts – Roethlisberger and Dickson’s 1939 book alone is 604 pages long – may have been a deterrent. But I believe it is essential to revisit the primary research so that misconceptions do not arise and so that researchers can form their own interpretations of the foundational data. The verbatim interviews include graphic accounts, supplemented with diagrams and photographs, of the working conditions at the Hawthorne Works. There is still a lot for future researchers to discover.

I also admire the financial endowments the researchers received, which Mayo mentions in advocating strongly for proper academic research funding (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). I think most researchers would agree with him on this, irrespective of their view of his research. This is something to which we should aspire – adequately financed research that has the time and space to tease out the nuances involved in a linked series of work-based research questions. Though the workplace has changed a great deal in the last 80 years, I do believe that the truths about the workers in the Hawthorne Studies, and many of the commentaries about them, are timeless – pay attention to workers, truly listen to their needs and realise that if they are happy with their work and their employer then they will probably be more productive and contented human beings. If our organisation values us and if we find our work to be interesting and fulfilling, then perhaps we will walk through five miles of snow to get to it.

- Dr Joe MacDonagh is a Chartered Psychologist and Honorary Secretary of the British Psychological Society’s History and Philosophy of Psychology Section

Key sources
Bendix, R. (1956). Work and authority in industry. New York: Wiley.
Byrne, O. & MacDonagh, J. (2018). What’s love got to do with it? Employee engagement amongst higher education workers. Irish Journal of Management, 36(3), 189–205.
Chiesa, M. & Hobbs, S. (2008). Making sense of social research: How useful is the Hawthorne effect? European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 67–74.
Dickson, W.J. & Roethlisberger, F.J. (1966). Counselling in an organisation: A sequel to the Hawthorne Studies. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
French, J.R.P. (1950). Field experiments: Changing group productivity. In J.G. Miller (Ed.) Experiments in social process. A symposium on social psychology (pp.79–96). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hassard, J.S. (2012). Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric research in its social, political and historical context. Human Relations, 65, 1431–1461.
Jarrett, C. (2008). Foundations of sand? The Psychologist, 21(9), 756–759.
Mayo, E. (1933). The human problems of an industrial civilization. London: Routledge.
O’Connor, E.S. (1999). The politics of management thought: A case study of the Harvard Business School and the Human Relations School. Academy of Management Review, 24(1), 117–131.
Roethlisberger, F.J. & Dickson, W.J. (1939). Management and the worker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Snow, C.E. (1927, November). Research on industrial illumination: A discussion of the relation of illumination intensity to productive efficiency. The Tech Engineering News.
Taylor, F.W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Bros.

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