The Hawthorn experiments marked a new direction in research of motivation and productivity. More than half a century has passed, and productivity remains a concern of management. Labor conflict continues wherever bosses are not fair or considerate of worker’s needs. Design of work tasks continues to be studied, systems of pay incentive continue to be controversial, and boredom on the job continues to be a problem. Despite criticism concerning poor research design and inadequate mythologies, the Hawthorn experiments highlighted new knowledge in motivation and productivity, underlined new problems and research issues in motivation studies and theories.
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The Hawthorn Experiments
In the early 1930s at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant, esteemed scientists from a world-class university hinted that research on real workers performing real production tasks in a world-class business was on the threshold of confirming the truth of that message. If bosses wanted to continue to be tough, organized labor could be equally tough. Law and society thereby assured that an unhappy worker can be as unproductive as he or she chooses to be. Hawthorne was the Chicago branch of AT&T’s Western Electric network of communications electronics manufacturing operations (Gillespie, 1993). Hawthorne plant management was, naturally enough, deeply interested in ways to increase worker productivity. The study at its outset intended to examine the effects on work output obtained from redesigning the work task, reducing boredom and fatigue with rest pauses or shorter work hours, revising the incentive pay system, and providing pleasant supervision to a selected group of female assembly employees. Within the first twelve months of worker behavior observation, the researchers were “unexpectedly” and suddenly seized by the impelling insight that social satisfaction arising out of human relations in the workplace accounted for the largest part of work behavior (Carey 1967). After nearly two years of observation, investigators claimed an increase in output of approximately 30% and confidently identified the one factor of substantial importance in accounting for this change as the provision of humane, caring supervision. Reports of this finding immediately began to appear in the management and then the popular literature. The definitive report on the Hawthorne experience was seven years in the making and did not come until 1939 with the publication of Management and the Worker, written by Harvard professor Fritz Roethlisberger and Hawthorne chief of Employee Relations Research, William Dickson (Gillespie, 1993).
The major disservice to management science done by Hawthorne was perhaps in suggesting the existence of a causal linkage between employee good feelings, usually referred to as satisfaction, and the employee’s work output commonly called productivity. For those already convinced that happy workers are productive workers, the emphasis shifted directly to the study of ways to increase worker satisfaction. Demonstrating worker dissatisfaction was tantamount to discovering poor productivity in the eyes of those among the ideologically committed. Psychology identified well over 3,000 scholarly research studies that had addressed the issue of worker satisfaction up to that time (Carey 1967). Such a prolific scientific effort on a single subject in the nearly forty-five years elapsed since the first reports of Hawthorne’s revelations is impressive evidence of the extent to which scientific energy had been channeled into the measurement and study of worker satisfaction. But evidence of higher output among satisfied workers was disappointingly scarce from this mass of evidence. (Franke and Kaul 1979).
Criticism of the Hawthorn Experiments
The Hawthorn Experiments were the first attempt of researchers to investigate productivity and motivation and analyze the data obtained from 3000 questionnaires. In doing so, Roethlisberger and Dickson appear to have confused experimental control with direct, supervisory control over worker actions. Such confusion concerning control of experimental conditions represents a level of scientific issue that today would be judged downright unprofessional. It is hard at this historical distance to appreciate how such ignorance of scientific error could have occurred (Carey 1967). The observing researchers in the test room, however, received paychecks written on Western Electric, just like their research subjects did. They were embedded in an ongoing work culture that was not likely to accept an overdose of industrial democracy. It also is quite probable that resentment in the larger department toward the greater personal freedom enjoyed in the relay room became too great for supervision to ignore (Carey 1967). Such forces in concert with similar reactions from management could well have accounted for so drastic a step as a discipline of subjects at this early stage of the project. The research design was not represented to them as a stable, permanent arrangement and the worst that could happen was to be returned to the larger workgroup. But whatever the personal motivation of workers, whatever the immediate concerns of management, and whatever any other direct causes of this disciplinary intervention there may have been, the discipline of these two workers represented a major violation of the integrity of the experiment. The subject population was directly changed in a way that could be expected to enhance the experimental outcome. Researchers guilty of such practices today would be charged with fraud. We may be generous with the Hawthorne research staff and chalk it all up to naivete blended with a general feeling that “it probably won’t hurt.” Indeed, it didn’t hurt the research hypothesis; this disciplinary intervention itself seems almost certainly a major cause of increased productivity arising out of the experiment (Franke and Kaul 1979).
Benefits and Advantages of the Research
Despite the limitations and weaknesses of the Hartshorne studies, they examined the links between productivity and motivation so important for modern organizational as well. Their findings were supported and proved by further research studies in this field. In those studies of worker satisfaction that had attempted to link satisfaction with worker productivity, Locke confirmed the earlier conclusions of Brayfield and Crockett (1955) and Vroom (1964) that there is no “simple relationship” between job satisfaction and worker productivity. That is to say, satisfaction and output are essentially independent issues. It is uncommon to find a causal linkage between them. Those unusual instances in which any linkage at all could be identified, indeed, were as easily read as situations where high work output resulted in high job satisfaction as they could be interpreted as showing any direct link proceeding causally from satisfaction to productivity. Locke concluded that “job satisfaction has no direct effect on productivity” (p. 1334). Brayfield and Crockett concluded their earlier review with the rather blunt prescription to fellow social scientists that “it is time to question the strategic and ethical merits of selling to industrial concerns an assumed relationship between employee attitudes and employee performance” (p. 421). Vroom’s revelation was carefully couched in scientific caveats and preceded by an extensive discussion of research on worker satisfaction, which constituted slightly more than a quarter of his book’s total length. His conclusions were furthermore accompanied by an impressive theory of worker motivation–expectancy theory–which seemed to leave the door open for the operation of worker satisfaction in work motivation. While clearly stated, his harsh pronouncement was easy to overlook. The beginning point for reevaluation of worker satisfaction as the fountainhead of productivity is quite naturally the Hawthorne studies themselves. These studies have not previously passed altogether without challenge. The literature of industrial sociology entertained a lively debate concerning the validity of the Hawthorne findings through the 1950s. In 1967 Alex Carey offered a scathing critique of Hawthorne in the pages of the American Sociological Review. In 1978, Franke and Kaul, in the pages of the same journal, reevaluated Hawthorne using a highly sophisticated time-series multiple regression design. They concluded that 90% of the variance in quantity and quality of output could be accounted for in the imposition of industrial discipline, economic adversity, and quality of raw materials. Franke and Kaul further asserted that the Hawthorne experience provides no evidence to justify the necessity for the introduction of humanitarian procedures in the shop as a device for increasing productivity (Franke and Kaul 1979).
Despite the dominance of an agenda on the reported outcomes of Hawthorne research, there were important positive products from this study. Hawthorne served as the impetus for broad new programs of research on work performance and organization design. Implementation of a plantwide experimental program of nondirective worker interviewing at the Hawthorne plant demonstrated the power of good listening for information gathering and morale-boosting alike. Measures of output in the relay room revealed that absolute weekly output need not diminish and can increase when total hours of work are cut even as rest periods are added. Observations of an intact production department documented the defensive power of a workgroup to restrict output to an arbitrary maximum. These were useful and important additions to the literature of management science (Carey 1967).
The Hawthorn experiments proved that it was prejudice for good feelings as the foundation of high-performance output that shaped the dominant theme of Hawthorne. The faith in the good feelings as the foundation of high-performance output has diminished little in the intervening years (Thomas, 2002). Much management literature continues to preach the power of good worker/supervisor relations (Henry and Landsberger 1958). The research programs proposed in the language of the Worker Alienation Act and the works of those authors referenced above are as much subject to corruption in their implementation as Taylor’s scientific management was in the hands of Henry Ford. They often have little to do with either job satisfaction or work output (Baldoni, 2004). Thus must either represent an emerging norm of enhanced working conditions in American industry, justified on moral and political grounds, or it deserves to be junked as a concept (Thomas and Adair 2004).
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The Hawthorn experiments allow us to say that economic circumstances and the availability or unavailability of alternative employment have an impact on the level of turnover. Intense discomfort in the job situation, however, can drive a worker to separate from employment in the interest of his or her mental and physical well-being (Robbins, 2002). Even high pay cannot always hold a worker who is seriously ill-fitted in skill or temperament for the job. Factory workers at the turn of the century were hired largely because they looked healthy and eager. Foremen and gang bosses went to the gate and picked the men who looked good to them. Little attempt was made to ascertain whether individual experience or background suited employment in the auto industry. Workers were assigned to a crew and expected to pitch in and help. There was no training available, no orientation to the company and its policies, no job descriptions or fixed assignments (Thomas, 2002).
The potential for confusion, inefficiency, task overlap, and mistakes in such a process was immense. Many workers were summarily fired for their ignorance, others quit in disgust or anger. The problem would not improve, though, until order was introduced into the workplace. The price of that order at Ford was narrowly specialized routine work. With the introduction of this routine, a premium wage was necessary to control turnover and stabilize the workforce. Following Mullins (2008), many workers who hated their jobs could not now afford to quit them if they wanted to. This seems a more expensive way to reduce absenteeism. Introducing a measure of satisfaction might well be a beneficial way to reduce extreme levels of absenteeism, but dissatisfaction and the opportunity to quit are always more closely related than are dissatisfaction and the act of quitting.
Reviews of the literature have consistently found that job satisfaction and productivity (performance) have a relationship. Given the fact that employees do not have to act on their feelings and there are many different actions they can take, it is no surprise to find that the association between satisfaction and task or job performance is quite modest (Reed 2001). The relationship of satisfaction to performance is also an indirect one. Satisfaction keeps employees attached to the organization, improves commitment to the organization, and creates the willingness to accept new challenges. In a 1989 study, Mayer found that job satisfaction was significantly related to both commitment to remain with the organization and commitment to its goals and values.
Field studies have shown correlations between every attribute of motivation and job satisfaction. Participation in motivation is more likely to influence satisfaction than performance. The integrating principle behind these results is that motivation enhances satisfaction when it leads to, or is associated with, attributes or conditions of the job that are generally valued. Motivation undermines satisfaction when it leads to or is associated with the absence of valued factors or the presence of negatively valued job factors. Some negatively valued factors are stress and failure, as well as dysfunctional uses of goals (overload, goals used to punish). Any approach that emphasizes that goals must be reached or surpassed also discourages employees from taking risks (Petri and Govern 2002).
Results of the Hawthorn experiments had a great impact on further management thought and motivation theories. They identify that the task of management is to draw on both the natural human tendency toward self-interest and the need to commit to a higher purpose. Management influences the alignment of these needs toward the organizational goals. According to Armstrong (2003), a commitment to the organization will satisfy the worker and motivate him or her to higher performance. The assumption is that motives lead to behavior. Needs spawn motivated effort, and goals are the instrument to meet these needs. Behavior is directed toward goal accomplishment which, in turn, satisfies the need. The premise is that employees are, by their very nature, goal-oriented. Motivation orientation–whether self-seeking or to a higher purpose–is the mainspring of human behavior (Robbins, 2002). The prognosis for organizational survival is, in part, determined by executive awareness of organizational culture and its fit with the host culture. The ability of organizational leadership to read changes in the environment effectively and then communicate and discuss those changes with the staff is critical (Reed 2001). Brown (1971) states that employees should know if they made the standard and whether they did better or worse. If the objectives are clear and the results are fairly measurable, then evaluation would appear to be straightforward–but it isn’t. The evaluation of an individuals’ accomplishment is fraught with all kinds of complexities, of which the individuals’ personality and how receptive they will be to the evaluation is only one. Promotion, pay, training, and future assignments are all tied to an individual’s rating–to say nothing of the individual’s peers, who are also interested in how that person is rated (Baldoni, 2004).
Despite research limitations and inadequate procedures of some research steps, the Hawthorn experiments made a great contribution to the theory of motivation and its relations with productivity. In most evaluation systems, problems arise not from evaluating individual accomplishments or failures on specific objectives, but from having to summarize and label performance. Employees can accept success or failure on given measurable tasks because the degree of accomplishment is relatively clear, but when overall performance is characterized, problems arise. Other researchers proved the results obtained during the Hawthorn experiments and supported the findings of these studies. The individual’s performance on specific objectives should speak for itself. The Hawthorn experiments find that if the individual is committed to challenging goals, high performance will be the result. If the standard is exceeded, the individual will experience success and will feel pleasure and satisfaction. If the individual does not meet the standard, failure, displeasure, and dissatisfaction will be experienced. The most straightforward prediction about the relationship of goal performance to satisfaction is this: the greater the success experienced, the greater the degree of satisfaction experienced as well. When employees perform well, they not only feel satisfied with their performance but also generalize this positive effect to the task; they like the task more than they did previously. In conclusion, job satisfaction is not a result of either the person or the job alone but rather of the person about the job. Thus, satisfaction is experienced if the job is appraised as fulfilling or facilitating the attainment of one’s values; dissatisfaction is experienced if the job is appraised as blocking or negating one’s values. The Hawthorn experiments allow managers to under the question: What happens after the individual employee becomes satisfied? It was originally assumed that high satisfaction would lead to high productivity, but industrial-organizational research has consistently failed to find support for this assumption. High satisfaction does not lead to high productivity. On the contrary, when the reward system is tied to performance, satisfaction results from productivity–the opposite of the original assumption. However, this relationship does not hold if the tie between rewards and performance is loose. A principle for job satisfaction is that rewards must be closely tied to performance. Although there is little relationship between satisfaction and performance, job satisfaction does lead to organizational commitment, which, in turn, affects the intent to stay with an organization. While there is still some controversy about the precise causal relationship between satisfaction and commitment, satisfaction is at least one causal factor in creating commitment. If we assume that positive job experiences conducive to satisfaction are factors in commitment and that commitment is a key factor in getting employees to stay with the organization, then committed employees will accept organizational goals or demands. Individuals who are both satisfied with, and thus committed to, the organization should be more likely to stay with the organization and accept the challenges that it presents to them. If those challenges are in the form of difficult goals, there will be effective performance and positive results. This link brings us back full circle to the beginning of the model, a motivated individual with challenging goals.
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