Elton Mayo - Hawthorne Effect

Elton Mayo, a trained industrial psychologist, and a member of the Harvard Business School faculty conducted studies at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company outside Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Elton Mayo’s early theoretical standpoint was based on the Scientific Management tradition formed by Frederick Taylor.

The initial purpose of Mayo’s experiments was to study factors affecting work, with a focus on physical factors such as stress and fatigue. The aim of the studies at the plant was to identify the optimum physical working conditions for productivity improvements. In line with the Scientific Management tradition, Elton Mayo therefore set out to discover normative psychical standards that have positive effects on productivity.

The experiments initially concentrated on the relationship between productivity and workplace lighting. Groups of workers were divided into an experimental room, which had the lightning improved, and into a control room with no alteration in lightning. Productivity rose, as expected, in the experiment room, but productivity also rose in the control room. Similar experiments showed the same surprising results, and the explanation for the surprising results was discovered after interviewing some participants.

The participants replied that they were so pleased about being singled out for an experiment that they wanted to do the best for the researchers and the company. This was labelled the Hawthorne Effect, which shows that humans do not only act as rational economic actors and that humans are also motivated by other factors such as feelings, sentiments and relations between humans.

After having conducted his research, Elton Mayo concluded that the workplace is a social system of interdependent actors, in which workers are influenced more by their need for recognition, need for security, social norms and sense of belonging than by the psychical work environment.

The Hawthorne Effect is oftentimes referred to as the starting point of the Human Relations School, in which scientific efforts are put into analyzing the effect of human relations on e.g. job satisfaction, productivity and job motivation.

Frederick Herzberg is another scientist who discovered the more subtle relationship between social norms, social needs and job motivation.

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