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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Hawthorn Effect and Humanistic Performance Improvements


Focusing on the human elements can help in improving organizational performance. The Hawthorne studies have helped to understand the nature of performance improvement and social expectations within the workplace. The creation of higher effort often requires change and then solidifying that change through new social expectations.  Focusing on people encourages them to perform at higher levels. 

The Hawthorne Effect is a concept of reactivity where people improve their performance because they are being singled out and made to feel important and not as a direct result of actual experimental manipulation.  The phenomenon was first experienced at the Bell Telephone Western Electric manufacturing plant in 1924 Chicago by Henry A. Landsberger.  The plant employed over 29,000 people and developed an industrial research center to improve morale and productivity (Brannigan,  & Zwerman, 2001). 

The primary benefit of the study is that it furthered the argument that organizations are social systems and motivation is an important human element to performance. Focusing on the human aspects of the workplace is a critical avenue of improving the organization. Performance itself is seen as part of the overall improvement of the worker and their conditions. It placed an emphasis on the human element of the workplace that has impacted management strategy.

The Hawthorne Study is often referred to as the Illumination study on light and productivity. As the light changed the productivity of people increased but once the study was concluded people’s performance slumped. It was believed that the study helped to highlight that when people are receiving attention their motivation improves in an effort to increase the perception of their performance. 

Other parts of the experiment include the changing of the workplace to receive short-lived improvements in performance. Organizations that change the work environment from time to time can create performance improvements but these performance improvements will become short-lived unless they are supported by new social expectations and feedback. The studies helped highlight how group norms, behaviors, and patterns are important to sustainable performance development.

There are some criticisms of the study. The study was never formally analyzed and has had mixed results in follow-up (Levitt & List, 2011). The variables were confounded and it is possible that other factors may have influenced the results. For example, seasonal temperatures or the treatment by managers could have an impact on the performance of employees.  The original records are believed to have been destroyed. 

Human performance is essential to organizational success. Companies often focus on creating efficiencies but fail to achieve high level of gains. By not understanding the in-depth complexity of human social activity performance improvements will be limited. Focusing on the development of the individual and their social group affords a higher level of expectation and motivational effort. Avoiding complacency by adjusting the work situation and expectations may increase effort but the social system maintains it.

Brannigan, A. & Zwerman, W. (2001). The real "hawthorne effect". Society, 38 (2)

Franke, R. H. & Kaul, J. D. (1978). The Hawthorne experiments: First statistical interpretation. American Sociological Review, 1978, 43, 623-643

Levitt, S. & List, J. (2011). Was there really a hawthorne effect at the hawthorne plant? an analysis of the original illumination experiments. American Economic Journal. Applied Economics, 3(1)

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