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The Hawthorne Studies - Findings

To his amazement Elton Mayo discovered a general upward trend in production completely independent of any of the changes he made. His findings didn't mesh with the then current theory (see F.W. Taylor) of the worker as motivated solely by self-interest. It didn't make sense that productivity would continue to rise gradually when he cut out breaks and returned the women to longer working hours.

Mayo began to look around and realized that the women, exercising a freedom they didn't have on the factory floor, had formed a social atmosphere that also included the observer who tracked their productivity. The talked, they joked and they began to meet socially outside of work. Mayo had discovered a fundamental concept that seems obvious today. Workplaces are social environments and within them people are motivated by much more than economic self-interest He concluded that all aspects of that industrial environment carried social value. When the women were singled out from the rest of the factory workers it raised their self-esteem, when they were allowed to have a friendly relationship with their supervisor they felt happier at work and when he discussed changes in advance with them they felt like part of the team. He had secured their cooperation and loyalty; it explained why productivity rose even when he took away their rest breaks.

The power of the social setting and peer group dynamics became even more obvious to Mayo in a later part of the Hawthorne Studies when he saw the flip side of his original experiments. A group of 14 men who participated in a similar study restricted production because they were distrustful of the goals of the project.

The portion of the Hawthorne Studies that dwelt on the positive effects of benign supervision and concern for workers that made them feel like part of a team became known as the Hawthorne Effect; the studies themselves spawned the human relations school of management that is constantly being recycled in new forms today: quality circles, participatory management, team building, et al.

Incidentally, the Hawthorne Works, the place where history was made is history now too. Western Electric closed it in 1983.

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