Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hawthorne studies on worker's behavior and sentiment

It is generally agreed among behavioral scientists that full-scale appreciation of the importance of norms play in influencing worker behavior did not occur until the early 1930s. This enlightenment grew out of a series of studies undertaken at Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago between 1924 and 1932. Originally initiated by Western Electric officials and later overseen by Harvard professors Elton Mayo, the Hawthorne studies concluded that,

· a worker’s behavior and sentiments were closely related
· group influences were significant in affecting individual behavior
· the group standards were highly effective in establishing individual worker output
· Money was less a factor in determining worker output than were group standards, sentiments, and security.

Here we are briefly reviewing the Hawthorne investigations and demonstrate the importance of these findings in explaining group behavior.

The Hawthorne researchers began by examining the relation between the physical environment and productivity. Illumination and other working conditions were selected to represent this physical environment. The researchers’ initial findings contradicted their anticipated results.

They began with illumination experiments with various groups of workers. The researchers manipulated the intensity of illumination upward and downward, while at the same time noting changes in group output. Results varied, but one thing was clear: In no case was the increase or decrease in output was in proportion to the increase or decrease in Illumination.

So the researchers introduced a control group: An experimental group was presented with varying intensity of illumination, while the controlled unit worked under constant illumination intensity. Again, the results were bewildering to the Hawthorne researchers. As the light level was increased in the experimental unit, output rose for both the control and the experimental group. But to the surprise of the researchers, as the light level was dropped in the experimental group, productivity continued to increase in both groups. In fact, a productivity decrease was observed in the experimental group only when the light intensity had been reduced to that of moonlight.

The Hawthorne researchers concluded that illumination intensity was only a minor influence among the many influences that affected an employee’s productivity, but they could not explain the behavior they had witnessed.

The researchers began a second set of experiments as a follow-up to the illumination experiments in the relay assembly test room at Western Electric. A small group of women was isolated from the main work group so that their behavior could be more carefully observed. They went about their job of assembling small telephone relays in a room laid out similarly to their normal department. The only significant difference was the placement in the room of a research assistant who acted as an observer—keeping records of output, rejects, working conditions, and a daily log sheet describing everything that happened.

Observations covering a multiyear period found that this small group’s output increased steadily. The number of personal absentees and those due to sickness were approximately one-third of those recorded by women in the regular production department. What became evident was that this group’s performance was significantly influenced by its status of being a “special"? group. The women in the test room in the experimental group was fun and that they also had the feeling they were in some sort of an elite group. They thought that management was concerned with their interest by engaging in such experimentation. In essence, workers in both the illumination and assembly-test-room experiments were reacting to the increased attention they were receiving.

A third study in the bank wiring observation room was introduced to ascertain the effect of a sophisticated wage incentive plan. The assumption was that individual workers would maximize their productivity when they saw that it was directly related to economic rewards. The most important finding coming out of this study was that employees did not individually maximize their outputs. Rather, their output became controlled by a group norm that determined what a proper day’s work is. Output was not only being restricted but individual workers were giving erroneous reports. The total for a week would check with the total week’s output but the daily reports showed a steady level of output regardless of actual daily production. What was going on?

Interviews determined that the group was operating well below its capability and was leveling output in order to protect itself. Members were afraid that if they significantly increased their output, the unit incentive rate would be cut, the expected daily output would be increased, layoffs might occur, or slower workers would be reprimanded. So the group established its idea of a fair output—neither too much nor too little. They helped each other out to ensure their reports were nearly level.

The norms the group established included a number of “don’ts"? Don’t be a rate-buster, turning out too much work. Don’t be a chiseler, turning out too little work. Don’t be a squealer on any of your peers.

How did the group enforce these norms? Their methods were neither gentle nor subtle. They included sarcasm, name-calling, ridicule and even physical punches to the upper arm of members who violated the group’s norms. Members would also ostracize individuals whose behavior was against the group’s interest.

The Hawthorne studies made an important contribution to our understanding of group behavior which shows that it has a direct effect in determining individual worker behavior.

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