The Hawthorne Effect

Back in the 1930s, a team of researchers from the Harvard Business School were commissioned to run some employee research for the telecom giant Western Electric (now Lucent Technologies). Conducted at the company's production plant in Hawthorne, near Chicago, the research programme involved inviting small groups of employees to trial various new working conditions before rolling them out to the general workforce. To the researchers' amazement, the participants seemed to like whatever was trialled, to such an extent that their productivity increased! For example, when researchers invited participants to trial working in brighter lighting conditions, productivity increased. But then when they trialled dimmer lighting conditions, productivity also increased. In fact, productivity kept increasing in successive trials of working under progressively dimmer lights, until the lighting was no stronger than moonlight! In another trial, the research participants were invited to test working shorter hours, and sure enough their productivity increased again. Indeed, subsequent trials showed that the more breaks the research participants were given and the less time they worked, the greater their productivity. But then, when the researchers asked them to trial longer hours, productivity went up again - to an all-time high.3

When taken together, the results of the various Hawthorne studies showed that whatever the researchers asked participants to discuss and trial resulted in an increase in productivity. The team of Harvard researchers, led by Elton Mayo, realized that their results had nothing to do with what was being trialled and everything to do with running research trials. By singling out a small group of employees to participate in an exclusive trial, participants felt valued, special and important. The special attention they received gratified their ego and created a positive emotional bond with what they were trialling.The practical upshot was that the research trials effectively transformed the research participants into advocates for whatever it was they were trialling. A series of further trials found this phenomenon to be more or less systematic, and the research team coined the term 'The Hawthorne Effect' to describe the goodwill and advocacy that research trials generate among research participants.

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