Modern Business and the Hawthorne Effect

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The term “Hawthorne Effect” was coined almost 100 years ago as a label used to explain the apparent positive correlation between increased supervision and increased work production. There has been significant criticism of the Hawthorne Effect by the business community since the term was created because, for those in opposition, the effect has not been properly quantified as the reason for the correlation. However, despite these criticisms, the Hawthorne Effect has persisted and remains a part of modern-day business. This is best demonstrated in developing countries as well as the industrial field of business. The Hawthorne effect is used as a measuring stick to determine the appropriate level of supervision in any given business. Due to the varying definitions of the Hawthorne Effect, the one used to discuss it will be “the tendency for productivity to increase when workers believe they are receiving special attention from management.”

In order to understand the applicability of the Hawthorne Effect in the modern-day business world, it is important to understand how this principle came into existence. “The Hawthorne Studies were the single most important investigation of the human dimensions of industrial relations in the early 20th century” (Brannigan and Swerman 55). The reasons for the Hawthorne Effect’s importance was due to the duration of the studies, which lasted several years, as well as the variability of the experiments that were conducted within the industrial workplace. Further, the studies at the Hawthorne factory were cutting edge because they took place during the transition of hierarchy from 19th-century labor to 20th-century labor.

In terms of criticism, much of it has to do with uncertainty that other factors besides the Hawthorne Effect were causes of less or more production from workers. “The critiques are based on secondary analyses of the original studies that failed to show the degree of evidence claimed by the authors, studies that have failed to replicate a Hawthorne Effect as well as evidence that workers may have increased their productivity for reasons other than increased attention by management” (Barnes 358). Despite these criticisms, the Hawthorne Effect has persisted and is a common explanation for productivity in business. In fact, through the analysis of modern-day textbooks, the Hawthorne Effect is very prevalent. Further, it is a concept that transcends the business world and carries over into other disciplines such as psychology and sociology (Chiesa and Hobbs 68). The effect has spurred the interest of modern-day psychologists and sociologists because of the evidence that supports the Hawthorne Effect. One of the areas that have demonstrated support is the research study on wood-burning that took place in developing countries.

In 2009, a study was published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology that attempted to determine whether or not the Hawthorne Effect was present in South Africa during a community trial. The trial sought to explore if people’s behavior changed during the supervision of indoor wood burning (Barnes 359). Indoor wood burning has been known to cause several different kinds of respiratory problems, particularly for children. In this study, families were recruited and placed into two different groups: intervention and comparison (Barnes 360). This was done to contrast the differences between households that received attention from the research team and those that did not. While this study was not done on businesses specifically, it still demonstrates, through positive psychology, the psychological impact of receiving the attention that leads to a change in behavior.

The study, which lasted about a year, showed support for the Hawthorne Effect. “There were significant behavioral improvements and reductions in indoor air pollution amongst the intervention group following the intervention” (Barnes 361). It is important to note, however, that the comparison group also made improvements throughout the study. While this may seem to negate the Hawthorne Effect in exchange for another factor such as health concerns, since the comparison group did not improve on the same level as the intervention group, there is evidence that the Hawthorne Effect did contribute to a higher level of improvement. “…amongst the intervention group, the proportion of households engaging in high-risk indoor air pollution practices…was reduced from 75.5% at baseline to 54.1% at follow-up” (Barnes 361). This large percentage change suggests that attention from authority figures, in this case, researchers, impacts the behavior of the subjects. In order to pin down the appearance of the Hawthorne Effect, the quantitative study was followed up with a qualitative questioning phase of both groups.

The selection for questioning was randomized and included both the intervention and comparison groups. Some of the participants who were questioned by the interventionist groups revealed that they were trying to look good to the research team by increasing their burning outdoors rather than indoors. Some respondents went as far as stating that they always burned outdoors, despite the fact that preliminary questionnaires proved the opposite (Barnes 362). The apparent desire to impress the research team was due to a recommendation for electricity. “…the research team were ‘coming to check where we burn before we get electricity’ and that ‘maybe some people thought if they burned indoors…they don’t deserve electricity’” (Barnes 364). While these assumptions on behalf of the participants were not accurate to the goal of the experiment, the belief that attention would result in either positive or negative results, impacted the behavior of the participants. In the business world, the researchers represented management while the subjects represented workers. Since burning indoors was more convenient, the attention given by the researchers to the intervention groups suggests that the Hawthorne Effect was relevant to this study and contributed to the increased burning outdoors by participants. In addition to the developing world, the industrial sector of business also shows that the Hawthorne Effect is still relevant to modern-day business.

Revisiting the original studies at the Hawthorne factory, the criticisms are still being weighed today. Many of these critiques surround the light experiment portion of the study where the changes in light intensity were blamed for an increase and decrease in productivity rather than increased attention from management. However, most of these criticisms have been unsupported due to the qualitative questioning that followed the studies.

The interviews determined that the productivity increases were not a result of changes to light intensity. Instead, the workers noticed they were being watched closely. Ultimately, since the workers had constant supervision and the process was being monitored actively, productivity increased. Understanding that this phenomenon can be a key factor to breakthrough performance can yield a lot of value. The best part is that the principle can be applied in a similar approach to virtually every modern process. Management can apply human motivation techniques to modern processes to improve productivity, reduce defects and establish a culture for continuous improvement. (Porter 11)

Obviously, this evidence of an increase in production with an increase of management participation can reap great rewards for managers of a business. In 2012, a defect study, published in the Industrial Management journal helped to show the applicability of the Hawthorne Effect in modern business. The study consisted of a manufacturing company that was pursuing ways to increase their production. In order to isolate the effectiveness of Hawthorne, the company was unable to improve these processes via expansion. The company, therefore, was forced to improve its existing production output through its line workers. In order to test the Hawthorne Effect, a baseline reading was taken for the current levels of worker productivity (Porter 12). In the first couple of months, production remained relatively stagnant because the initial phase did not involve close supervision. However, by the third month supervision was added to the study and the results indicated that the Hawthorne Effect was at work. “Given that the only circumstance that had changed was the level of supervision, this quickly led the project manager to believe that the Hawthorne effect was having an impact in plant operations” (Porter 12). However, just because the Hawthorne Effect looked like the cause, more evidence was needed to substantiate the claim.

The evidence comes in breaking apart the stages of the project. In the first stage, management was largely absent in monitoring the workers. “…production supervisors were unengaged in the process. In some cases, they were plagued with nonessential meetings that distracted them from their front-line activities on the production floor” (Porter 12). As the production supervisors became more engaged with the process, the level of production from workers began to increase dramatically. “It turns out that hourly employees were modifying their behavior significantly when the team was on the production floor.” (Porter 12). This awareness by the line workers led to the level of output that the manufacturing company was looking for from the outset.

In order to replicate the Hawthorne Effect, to see if, in fact, this was occurring, the study changed the process of production to see whether it was the variable of increased supervision or the variable of change that was creating this difference in production. When the new process phase was implemented, worker production remained the same as it was before (when supervision was minimal). However, when supervision was increased like the previous stage, worker production saw a noticeable increase. “This analysis, along with the fact that the team had made no real improvements to the process during the second month, allowed the project manager to conclude that the improvements were the result of the Hawthorne effect, not process change. That is, the project manager’s supervision during data collection was influencing the line workers’ actions” (Porter 13). Therefore, by the end of the study, the effect had been tested against the variable of change, much like the initial studies at the Hawthorne factory. It was determined that the Hawthorne Effect was playing an active role in the changes in production that were recorded in the study.

Further, this study was broad and consequently can be applied to several sectors of business. “By understanding that the Hawthorne effect exists, it is possible to use the phenomenon to make real improvements. By establishing a culture with active supervision, everything becomes more team-oriented and more can be accomplished” (Porter 15). This is very good for business because not only does utilizing the Hawthorne Effect save money, resources and time but it helps to uncover the maximum potential of employees and their supervisors.

While the Hawthorne Effect will undoubtedly continue to be debated amongst professionals in business, psychology, and sociology, it is apparent that there is a noticeable difference in attitude, choices and overall production. In the case of the indoor pollution experiment, this was demonstrated through researchers and subjects. In the defect study, this was shown in the classical Hawthorne sense through supervisors and employees. The developing country example appears to give some foresight that for future developed countries, the Hawthorne Effect may be used to monitor and increase their progress. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Hawthorne Effect has been instrumental in maximizing the results of those who receive attention.

Works Cited

Barnes, Brendon R. "The Hawthorne Effect in Community Trials in Developing Countries." International Journal of Social Research Methodology 13.4 (2010): 357-70. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Brannigan, Augustine, and William Swerman. "The Real "Hawthorne Effect”" Society 38.2 (2001): 55-60. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Chiesa, Mecca, and Sandy Hobbs. "Making Sense of Social Research: How Useful Is the Hawthorne Effect?" European Journal of Social Psychology 38.1 (2008): 67-74. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Porter, Chris. "The Hawthorne Effect Today." Industrial Management 54.3 (2012): 10-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. 2014