Hawthorne Studies Examine Human Productivity

The Hawthorne studies, which constituted one of the first major scientific efforts to examine human productivity and motivation, led to the development of the field of industrial sociology.

Summary of Event

The Hawthorne studies were a series of experiments conducted between 1924 and 1932 by Harvard University professors and employees of the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company Western Electric Manufacturing Company in Cicero, Illinois. The initial purpose of the experiments was to investigate determinants of worker output. Among the results of the studies, however, were the emergence of the field of industrial sociology and recognition of the importance of social factors in worker behavior. Industrial sociology
Worker productivity, Hawthorne effect
Hawthorne studies
[kw]Hawthorne Studies Examine Human Productivity (1924-1932)
[kw]Human Productivity, Hawthorne Studies Examine (1924-1932)
[kw]Productivity, Hawthorne Studies Examine Human (1924-1932)
Industrial sociology
Worker productivity, Hawthorne effect
Hawthorne studies
[g]United States;1924-1932: Hawthorne Studies Examine Human Productivity[05980]
[c]Business and labor;1924-1932: Hawthorne Studies Examine Human Productivity[05980]
[c]Sociology;1924-1932: Hawthorne Studies Examine Human Productivity[05980]
Mayo, George Elton
Pennock, George A.
Whitehead, T. North
Roethlisberger, Fritz Jules
Warner, William Lloyd

Three sets of experiments were conducted at the Hawthorne plant: the illumination studies, the relay assembly experiments, and the bank wiring experiments. The illumination studies were conducted between November, 1924, and April, 1927. The primary investigator in these experiments was George A. Pennock, superintendent of inspection at the Hawthorne plant. In cooperation with the National Research Council, Western Electric studied the relationship between worker efficiency and the quality and quantity of illumination in the workplace.

The experimental design included a control group and an experimental group. The first test examined whether efficiency in the experimental group would be increased with increased illumination. The efficiency of the experimental group did increase when the lighting in the group’s work area was improved, but the efficiency of the control group simultaneously improved in similar magnitude. When the reverse hypothesis was tested, with lighting reduced in the experimental group’s workplace, the efficiency of both groups again improved. This was contrary to all expectations. Despite continued reductions in illumination, efficiency continued to improve until workers in the experimental group were scarcely able to see what they were doing. Pennock concluded that light was only one of many variables that might affect the rate of production. He further concluded that researchers must control other variables effectively in testing the impact of a given factor postulated to influence productivity. Pennock’s report on the illumination studies, published in Personnel Journal in 1930, was the first description of the studies at the Hawthorne plant to appear in the management literature.

In 1927, Pennock met George Elton Mayo at a meeting of the National Industrial Conference Board in New York. Pennock noted the parallels between his work at the Hawthorne plant and the experimental work that Mayo presented at the meeting. Ultimately, he convinced Mayo to travel to Illinois and look into the possible reasons for the results documented in the illumination experiments. Mayo did not take on the Hawthorne project alone. He was accompanied by a well-recognized group of his colleagues from Harvard University that included Fritz Jules Roethlisberger, another professor of industrial research; William Lloyd Warner, a social anthropologist; and T. North Whitehead, a statistician. Along with this group of academicians, other leaders from Western Electric became involved in the studies, including the directors of employee relations and personnel research.

The second set of experiments accepted Pennock’s earlier conclusions. These new experiments were designed to determine the environmental factors influencing efficiency, using an experimental design that, in the estimation of the research team, adequately controlled all the variables believed to be critical. The researchers hoped that the greater rigidity of control in this set of experiments would overcome the problems of the earlier attempt. They did everything that was within their power to minimize the number of variables involved in determination of the efficiency in question and to control those variables as strictly as possible. They chose to work with a small group and endeavored to observe and record all the changes that took place on an individual basis. Further, there would be no changes in type of work, the work waiting for each operator would be kept constant, no inexperienced operators would be used, no personnel would be shifted, all operators would be involved in the same task, the job would be of short duration, the work would be enduring enough to keep the operators employed throughout the experimental period, the work pace would not be influenced by mechanical equipment, and the subjects would participate voluntarily.

Because of these and other considerations, the experimenters chose the relay assembly operation to test their hypotheses. A separate test room was established in which a workbench for the operators faced the observers’ stations. The subjects were selected with the aid of the guidance of two experienced operators who were friendly toward each other and would themselves be subjects. When the experiments were completed, Whitehead had an enormous volume of data for analysis. Despite several years of analysis by Whitehead and his staff, the researchers found no statistically significant correlations between variations in physical circumstances and variations in the output of workers in the relay assembly test room.

It is fair to say that the second experiment at the Hawthorne plant failed to achieve its stated objectives, but it would be unfair to suggest that the researchers failed to learn. They discovered that the six individuals in the experiment became a team, developed a team spirit, and, as a team, cooperated with the experimenters. Further, the close supervision they received seemed to have positive effects, and, as a result, Western Electric began an interviewing program to improve the supervision of its workers. This interviewing program yielded many fruitful insights into employee morale, particularly the benefits of eliminating employee fears of authority. Further, the program documented the impacts of outside concerns on employee morale and led to the belief that satisfaction or dissatisfaction with work is in part a function of an individual’s position or status within both the organization and society. The influences of the worker’s social environments within the plant and outside the plant were thus recognized as key determinants of worker behavior.

The third set of experiments at the Hawthorne plant sought to use nonintrusive observation and interview processes to explore informal social influences on worker behavior. This set of studies used a bank wiring observation room, selected by the researchers specifically to allow effective study of group influences. The researchers collected baseline data on worker behavior prior to placing the study group under observation. Six months of observation then ensued. Individual potential for productivity was measured through dexterity and intelligence tests, among others. The conclusions of the bank wiring experiment underscored the importance of informal group controls on productivity. The researchers noted that the group controls had greater influences on behavior than did piece-rate incentives or management expectations, that the group itself actually set the rate of production informally, along with many other norms, and that group controls had greater influences on behavior than did individual capacities.


The field of industrial sociology was created during the Hawthorne experiments. The recognition of the importance of social systems to worker behavior is clearly the one greatest impact of the years of effort put forth at the Hawthorne plant by the researchers from Harvard University and Western Electric. Industrial sociology later became one of the key scientific foundations supporting an understanding of labor productivity. Without the contributions of this field, the development of management thought would have been vastly different in the remainder of the twentieth century.

The “Hawthorne effect” is the common name given to the result that Pennock observed in the first set of experiments at the Hawthorne plant. The Hawthorne effect is the change that takes place in individuals’ behavior when they perceive that they are being treated differently from others. This explains why efficiency improved no matter how the illumination was varied: The workers perceived that they were receiving special treatment. Contrary to popular belief, however, the discovery of the Hawthorne effect was not the most important finding of the Hawthorne studies. The Hawthorne effect is only one manifestation of the experiments’ greater contribution, which was the discovery of the general influence of social systems on worker behavior.

The practice of management was significantly altered as a result of the experiments’ demonstration of the impact of social systems on workers. It is generally recognized that the era of scientific management came to an end following the Hawthorne studies. Traditional managerial beliefs and assumptions of the day, such as the Machiavellian and laissez-faire assumption that individuals act primarily out of enlightened self-interest, were rejected as a result of the studies. Scientifically designing work for the individual and scientifically selecting the ideal individual to perform the work, as advocated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, Taylor, Frederick Winslow
Scientific management were no longer viewed as adequate to ensure efficient production.

As old ideas were rejected, new ideas were endorsed. The Hawthorne studies ushered in a “human relations” or “social man” era in the workplace. Industrial sociology provided a new and different way of looking at motivation and productivity, changing the nature of management-labor relations. The focus of theoretical attention was shifted from the individual to the group and from determinants of worker productivity to determinants of worker motivation. The Hawthorne studies made clear the importance of human and social skills to effective management. Workers no longer were believed to be motivated solely by wages, and managers came to recognize that antagonistic labor relations practices could have detrimental long-term effects on productivity.

Managerial practices and patterns of workplace supervision certainly changed as a result of the Hawthorne studies. It also can be argued that the studies changed industrial engineering and its applications of time-and-motion studies, industrial psychology and physiology, with their emphasis on the individual, and even economic theory. Mayo, in fact, endeavored to draw conclusions from the Hawthorne studies that extended well beyond managerial issues to societal processes. In his view, rapid industrial growth and rapid technological innovation in manufacturing, use of large-scale mass-production systems, and impersonal relations within the workplace had disturbed the “communal integrity” of the United States. Cultural and societal social development had not kept pace with technological progress, and these factors required attention. These broad conclusions regarding society were not validated by the Hawthorne studies, but as principal investigator in the studies, Mayo gained prominence and a platform to advance his theories.

Some have described the relay assembly experiment performed at the Hawthorne plant as the first great scientific experiment in industry. The Hawthorne studies verified the value of applying the scientific process and experimentation in the development of management theory. Management;theory As a consequence, the development of management theory since that time has required a basis in valid scientific experimental projects. Dogmatic prescriptions such as Lillian Gilbreth’s The Psychology of Management (1914) no longer suffice. The Hawthorne studies were not minor investigations of esoteric topics: Their impact on all managerial disciplines is widely recognized to be immense. Industrial sociology
Worker productivity, Hawthorne effect
Hawthorne studies

Further Reading

  • Faunce, William A., ed. Readings in Industrial Sociology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967. Collection contains the landmark works in the field of industrial sociology, including early and modern writings.
  • George, Claude S., Jr. The History of Management Thought. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Comprehensive treatment of the history of management thought from prehistoric times through the 1960’s. Provides an outstanding description of the ancient history of managerial thought and developments in the twentieth century. Includes a time line of critical events.
  • Korman, Abraham K. Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A thorough review, geared toward college students of the subject, of the psychological theory and research relating to industrial and organizational psychology. Introductory chapter presents a succinct yet complete description of the development of industrial and organizational psychology.
  • Miller, Delbert C., and William H. Form. Industrial Sociology. 3d ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. An outstanding and thorough treatment of industrial sociology and its development. Includes many figures and foldouts.
  • Miner, John B. Organizational Behavior: Foundations, Theories, and Analyses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Comprehensive discussion of organizational behavior includes background on early research in the field. Chapter 2 addresses Mayo’s work and the Hawthorne studies. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Rose, Michael. Industrial Behaviour: Theoretical Development Since Taylor. London: Allen Lane, 1975. Divided chronologically into five parts: “Taylorism,” “Human Factor Industrial Psychology,” “Human Relations,” “Some Methodological and Theoretical Consequences of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations,” and “Action Approaches.” Focuses on the development of theories regarding management of the human element of organizations.
  • Trahair, Richard C. S. The Humanist Temper. 1984. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. Exhaustive personal biography of George Elton Mayo. Reprint edition features a foreword by leadership expert Abraham Zaleznik.
  • Wren, Daniel A. The Evolution of Management Thought. 5th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Provides definitive treatment of the development of early management thought, the scientific management era, the “social man” era, and the modern era. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Gilbreth Publishes The Psychology of Management

Fayol Publishes General and Industrial Management

American Management Association Is Established

McKinsey Founds a Management Consulting Firm

Bell Labs Is Formed

Barnard Publishes The Functions of the Executive