Team Leadership Toolkit


Elton Mayo (1880-1949)

The Hawthorne Experiment

A graduate of Adelaide University and a medical student in London and Edinburgh, Australian born Elton Mayo is regarded as the founder of the "Human Relations Movement" and of industrial sociology, based on his discoveries in the Hawthorne Experiments of 1927-1932 of what really motivates workers to higher performance.

In the late 1920’s a group of girls who assembled telephone equipment were the subjects of a series of studies undertaken to determine the effect on their output of working conditions. length of the working day, number and length of rest pauses, and other factors relating to the 'non-human' environment. The girls, especially chosen for the study, were placed in a special room under one supervisor and were carefully observed.

As the experimenters began to vary the conditions of work. they found that, with each major change, there was a substantial increase in production. Being good experimenters, they decided, when all the conditions to be varied had been tested, to return the girls to their original poorly-lit work benches for a long working day without rest pauses and other amenities. To the astonishment of the researchers, output rose again, to a level higher than it had been even under the best of the experimental conditions.

At this point. the researchers were forced to look for factors other than those which had been deliberately manipulated in the experiment. For one thing, it was quite evident that the girls developed very high morale during the experiment and became extremely motivated to work hard and well. The reasons for this high morale were found to be several:

A new kind of hypothesis was formulated out of this preliminary research. The hypothesis was that

motivation to work, productivity and quality of work are all related to the nature of the social relations among the workers and between the workers and their boss.

In order to investigate this more systematically, a new group was selected.

This group consisted of fourteen men: some wired banks of equipment which others then soldered, and which two inspectors examined before labelling it 'finished'. The men were put into a special room where they could be observed around the clock by a trained observer who sat in the corner of the room. At first the men were suspicious of the outsider, but as time wore on and nothing special happened as a result of his presence, they relaxed and fell into their 'normal' working routines. The observer discovered a number of very interesting things about the work group in the bank-wiring room.

Result 1.

Though the group keenly felt its own identity as a total group, there were nevertheless two cliques within it, roughly corresponding to those in the front of the room and those at the back.

The men in front felt themselves to be of higher status and they thought that the equipment they were wiring was more difficult than that of the back group. Each clique included most of the wiremen, soldermen and inspectors in that part of the room, but there were some persons who did not belong to either clique. The two cliques each had their own special games and habits, and there was a good deal of competition and mutual ribbing between them.

Result 2.

The group as a whole had some 'norms', certain ideas of what was a proper and fair way for things to be.

Several of these norms concerned the production rate of the group and could best be described by the concept of 'a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay' . In other words, the group had established a norm of how much production was 'fair', namely 6,000 units, a figure which satisfied management but well below what the men could have produced had fatigue been the only limiting factor. Related to this basic norm were two others: 'one must not be a rate-buster’, which meant that no member should produce at a rate too high relative to that of the others in the group, and 'one must not be a chiseller’, which meant that one must not produce too little relative to the others. Being a deviant in either direction elicited kidding rebukes, social pressure to get back into line, and social ostracism if the person did not respond to the pressure. In that the men were colluding to produce at a level below their capacity, these norms taken together amounted to what has come to be called 'restriction of output'.

The other key norm which affected working relationships concerned the inspectors and the supervisor of the group. In effect, the norm stated that 'those in authority must not act officious or take advantage of their authority position'. The men attempted to uphold the assumption that inspectors were no better than anybody else and that, if they attempted to take advantage of their role or if they acted of officiously, they were violating group norms. One inspector did feel superior and showed it. The men were able to play tricks on him with the equipment, to ostracise him, and to put social pressure of such an extent on him that he asked to be transferred to another group. The other inspector and the group supervisor were part of the gang' and were accepted for this reason.

Result 3.

The observer discovered that the group did not follow company policy on a number of key issues.

For example, it was forbidden to trade jobs because each job had been rated carefully to require a certain skill level. Nevertheless, the wiremen often asked soldermen to take over wiring while they soldered. In this way, they relieved monotony and kept up social contacts with others in the room. At the end of each day, each man was required to report the amount of work he had done. Actually the supervisor was supposed to report for all the men, but he had learned that the men wished to do their own reporting and decided to let them do it. What the men actually reported was a relatively standard figure for each day, in spite of large variations in actual output. This practice produced a ‘straight line output'. a standard figure for each day. Actually, however. the output within the group varied greatly as a function of how tired the men were, their morale on any particular day, and many other circumstances. The men did not cheat in the sense of reporting more than they had done. Rather, they would under-report some days, thus saving up extra units to list on another day when they had actually underproduced

Result 4.

The men varied markedly in their individual production rates.

An attempt was made to account for these differences by means of dexterity tests given to the men. Dexterity test results did not correlate with output, however. An intelligence measure was then tried with similar lack of success. What finally turned out to be the key to output rates was the social membership in the cliques. The members of the high-status clique were uniformly higher producers than the members of the low-status clique. But the very highest and very lowest producers were the social isolates, who did not belong to either group. Evidently the individual output was most closely related to the social membership of the workers, not to their innate ability.

The output rates were actually one of the major bones of contention between the two cliques because of the pay system: each man got a base rate plus a percentage of the group bonus based on the total production. The high-status clique felt that the low-status one was chiselling and nagged them about it. The low-status group felt insulted to be looked down upon and realised that the best way to get back at the others was through low production. Thus, the two groups were caught in a self defeating cycle which further depressed the production rate for the group as a whole.

From the original researches of Roethlisberger and Dickson, Management and The Worker. Summarised by Schein, Organisational Psychology .1965