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Elton Mayo: the Hawthorne experiments.

Professor George Elton Mayo (1880-1949) has secured fame as the leader in a series of experiments which became one of the great turning-points in management thinking. At the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric, he discovered that job satisfaction increased through employee participation in decisions rather than through short-term incentives.

Mayo's importance to management lies in the fact that he established evidence on the value of a management approach and style which, although not necessarily an alternative to FW Taylor's scientific management, presented facts which Taylorites could not ignore.

Background and career

An Australian by birth, Mayo read psychology at Adelaide University and, in 1911, was appointed lecturer in Logic, Ethics and Psychology (and later Professor of Philosophy), at the University of Queensland.

Anxious to move to the USA for professional reasons, he took a post at Pennsylvania University in 1923. Here, he became involved in one of the investigations which seemed to act as a dry-run for Hawthorne. In one department at a spinning mill in Philadelphia, labour turnover was 250% compared with an average of 6% in other departments of the company. A series of experimental changes in working conditions was introduced in the department, most notably rest pauses. These changes led to successive increases in productivity and the raising of morale. After one year, labour turnover was down to the average level for the company as a whole. It was assumed that the explanation for this improvement was the introduction and modification of rest pauses; this explanation was to undergo substantial modification as a result of Hawthorne.

The Hawthorne Experiments began in 1924, Mayo's involvement in them in 1928, after he had moved to the Harvard University School of Business Administration as Associate Professor of Industrial Research. Later awarded a Chair, he remained at Harvard until his retirement in 1947. During the Second World War, Mayo contributed to the development of supervisor training within his Training Within Industry (TWI) programme, which was widely adopted in the USA. The last two years of his life were spent in Britain as an advisor to the British government on problems within industry. Mayo wrote about democracy and freedom and the social problems of industrialised civilisation. It is as the author of 'Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation' which reports on the Hawthorne Experiments, that he is known for his contribution to management thinking, even though he disclaimed responsibility for the design and direction of the project.


The Hawthorne plant of Western Electric was located in Chicago. It had some 29,000 employees and manufactured telephones and telephone equipment, principally for AT & T. The company had a reputation for advanced personnel policies and had welcomed a research study by the National Research Council into the relationship between work-place lighting and individual efficiency.

The Experiments

The study began in 1924 by isolating two groups of workers in order to experiment with the impact of various incentives on their productivity. Improvements to levels of lighting produced increases in productivity, but so too did reversion to standard lighting and even below-standard lighting in both groups. The initial assumption therefore was that increased output stemmed from variation alone.

Other incentives--including payment incentives and rest pauses--were manipulated at regular intervals, and although output levels varied, the trend was inexorably upwards. Whatever experimentation was applied, output went up. Although it had been fairly conclusively determined that lighting had little or nothing to do with output levels, the Assistant Works Manager (George Pennock) agreed that something peculiar was going on and that experimentation should continue.

Early deductions--Supervision and Employee attitudes

In the winter of 1927, Pennock invited Clair Turner, Professor of Biology and Public Health at MIT, to consult. Turner quickly resolved that rest pauses in themselves were not the cause for increased output, although it was observed that longer rest pauses gave rise to more social interaction, which in turn impacted on mental attitudes. Turner attributed the rise in output to: the small group; the type of supervision; earnings; the novelty of the experiment, and the increased attention to the experimentees generated by the experiment itself.

Pennock had been among the first to note that supervisory style was important. The supervisor involved in the illumination experiment had been relaxed and friendly; he got to know the operators well and was not too worried about company policies and procedures. Discipline was secured through enlightened leadership and understanding, and an esprit de corps grew up within the group. This was in stark contrast to standard practice before the experiment.

When Pennock invited Turner to participate, he also invited Mayo (although it is unknown whether this was as a result of Mayo's achievements at the Philadelphian Spinning Mill, or because of a desire to involve Harvard). Visits in 1929 and 1930 indicated to Mayo "a remarkable change of attitude in the group". Mayo's view was that the Test Room Workers had turned into a social unit, enjoyed all the attention they were getting, and had developed a sense of participation in the project.

In order to understand this further Mayo instituted a series of interviews. These provided the workers with an opportunity to express their views and let off steam. It emerged that they would feel better for discussing a situation even if it did not change. Further exploration into worker complaints revealed that some had little or no basis in fact but were actually symptoms or indicators of personal situations causing distress.

By focusing on a more open, conversational, listening and caring interview approach, Mayo had struck a key which linked the style of supervision and the level of morale to levels of productivity.

Further research--Social Groups

A third stage in the Research programme took place in the Bank Wiring Room with a similar application of incentives to productivity. Here it emerged that:

output was restricted--the group had a standard for output which was respected by individuals in the group;

* the group was indifferent to the employer's financial incentive scheme;

* the group developed a code of behaviour of its own based on solidarity in opposition to the management, and

* output was determined by informal social groups rather than by management.

Mayo had read the work of FW Taylor who had already established that social groups were capable of exercising very strong control over the work behaviour of individual members (Taylor had called it 'systematic soldiering'). The interesting evelopment which Mayo noted, however, was that whereas in the first set of experiments productivity went up as the experiments progressed, in the other--the Bank Wiring Room--productivity was restricted.

In The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, Mayo wrote:

"Human collaboration in work, in primitive and developed societies, has always depended for its perpetuation upon the evolution of a non-logical social code which regulates the relations between persons and their attitudes to one another. Insistence upon a merely economic logic of production ... interferes with the development of such a code and consequently gives rise in the group to a sense of human defeat. This ... results in the formation of a social code at a lower level and in opposition to the economic logic. One of its symptoms is 'restriction'."

The question which needed to be asked, therefore, was "What was different between the two groups?" . The answer was found to lie with the attitude of the observer--where the observer encouraged participation and took the workers into his confidence, productivity went up; where the observer merely watched and adopted the trappings of traditional supervisory practice, output was restricted.

Interpreting Hawthorne

For industry to benefit from the experiments at Hawthorne, Mayo first concluded that supervisors needed training in understanding the personal problems of workers, and also in listening and interviewing techniques. He held that the new supervisor should be less aloof, more people-oriented, more concerned, and skilled in handling personal and social situations.

It was only later, after a period of reflection, that Mayo was able to conclude that:

* job satisfaction increased as workers were given more freedom to determine the conditions of their working environment and to set their own standards of output;

* intensified interaction and cooperation created a high level of group cohesion;

* job satisfaction and output depended more on cooperation and a feeling of worth than on physical working conditions.

In Mayo's view, workers had been unable to find satisfactory outlets for expressing personal problems and dissatisfactions in their work life. The problem, as Mayo perceived it, was that managers thought the answers to industrial problems resided in technical efficiency, when actually the answer was a human and social one.

Mayo's contribution lies in recognising from the Hawthorne experiments that the formality of strict rules and procedures spawns informal approaches and groups with their base in human emotions, sentiments, problems and interactions. The manager, therefore, should strive for an equilibrium between the technical organisation and the human one and hence should develop skills in handling human relations and situations. These include diagnostic skills in understanding human behaviour and interpersonal skills in counselling, motivating, leading and communicating.

In Perspective

Mayo has been acclaimed by his followers as the Founder of the Human Relations school of management, and he has been criticised by sociologists for not going far enough in his interpretations.

Reading Mayo's conclusions and interpretations cause no surprise--let alone discovery--in the 1990s; his findings are increasingly commonplace among social scientists, trade unionists and managers alike. Perhaps that is a measure of his achievement, because most critics and commentators agree that he was the first, not necessarily to state the case, but to demonstrate, infer and provide evidence from it to shift management thinking in a direction other than the widespread and entrenched dominance of Taylor's scientific management.

Hawthorne--thanks to both Mayo and one of his major colleagues and collaborators (F J Roethlisberger) was widely reported and discussed. Roethlisberger said of Mayo that the data were not his, the results not his, but the interpretations were Mayo's. Without those interpretations, the results of Hawthorne would still be collecting dust in the archives.

The experiment also gave rise to the term--'Hawthorne effect'--a situation which arose because people were 'singled' out for special treatment, or a 'special situation' was created where workers could feel free to air their problems.

Mayo's conclusions influenced others who came in turn to be regarded as gurus:

his ideas on the emergence of 'informal' organisations were read by Argyris and others as they developed theories about how organisations learned and developed

the discrediting of the 'rabble hypothesis' theory--based on the assumption that individuals only pursue self-interest--led directly to the work of McGregor (Theory X and Theory Y) with its wider implications for leadership and organisation.

The conclusions drawn by Mayo from the Hawthorne studies established the beginnings of the importance of management style as a major contributor to industrial productivity, of interpersonal skills as being as important as monetary incentives or target-setting, and of a more humanistic approach as a means of satisfying the organisation's economic needs and human social skills.

Key works by Mayo

The editions cited here are those held in, and available for loan to members from, the Chartered Management Institute's Information Centre. These may not always be the first edition.

The human problems of an industrial civilization, 2nd edition

Boston, Mass: Harvard University, 1946

The social problems of an industrial civilization, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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