No one could predict when straightforward research about the relationship between the physical environment and workers’ productivity would become one of the most influential works in industrial psychology. The Hawthorne Experiment, which took place at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Plant from 1924 to 1933, concluded nothing about the relationship it was intended to study in the first place. Instead, it gained popularity by generating an intriguing postulate that the workers’ productivity is altered by the workers’ awareness of participating in the experiment.
This leads to the view that social factors are the most significant factor in raising productivity, and group dynamics, rather than environment, influence behavior (Robbins & Judge, 2017). Since then, this study has opened a whole new field of research, along with the controversy that put the study in a constant scholarly battle since its early conception.
Kompier (2006) stated that Hawthorne’s studies have stimulated more research and controversy, as well as contributed more to management thinking progression, than any other theory or set of experiments. However, he also debunked the importance of these studies as overstated in literature, while Jones (1992) argued that the data in the original experiment are not adequate for the task of evaluating this interpretation, and the conclusion is just a construction of subsequent studies of the Hawthorne experiments. On the contrary, many researchers also argued to firmly support the findings of the original study (Sonnenfeld, 1985). This is just a glimpse of a scholarly debate surrounding the study.
Despite the controversy, this study has inspired people to the importance of psychological factors that influence employee motivation and productivity, including worker autonomy, attention to social factors, and group cohesiveness (Singh, 2016). Kompier (2006) insists that the Hawthorne Effect is a myth, but emphasized that the story persists partly because it is in accordance with the cognitive world and interests of management in reaching its goals to assure productivity and to control social processes in the organization.
For the critics, one of the main problems is that there may be someone who uses the Hawthorne experiment as a scientific foundation to justify the glorification of social factors in a workplace and ignore the improvement of work conditions and workers’ pay. Another problem is that managers can be trapped in micromanaging practices, such as hovering and hounding management. Scholars would agree that these are what managers should avoid.
However, belittling the importance of the study to the extent that cancels the whole findings is also unfair. Scholars should leave this unbalanced view, and start to look at the findings as an honest question that should enrich our knowledge of organizational behavior. We can come to an agreement that the social factors and norms in the organization are important, as the experiment suggested, but we can also come to an agreement that they are not the only factors.
Hawthorne experiment, along with the controversies, is still a relevant study for managers in enhancing their managerial skills and developing a more balanced view of management. For managers who are too focused on technicality and incentives, this Hawthorne story should be able to remind them of how important social factors are. On the other side, there are managers who are too afraid of losing control and too focused on controlling the social environment; it may be useful to remind them of how the critics denounced the story.
Like many parts of the knowledge building, Hawthorne experiment is an important block that completes the building. To see one building as only one block will result in many problems, and to take out the block from the building will result in an incomplete building. The story of the experiment still inspires many leaders, and it is a sign that the study is still closely relevant to nowadays managerial problems. However, managers should be able to see the bigger picture of every problem they face and not use a limited subjective glasses point of view.
References Jones, S. R. G. (1992). Was There a Hawthorne Effect? American Journal of Sociology, 98, 451–468. Kompier, M. A. (2006). The “Hawthorne effect” is a myth, but what keeps the story going? Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 32(5), 402–412. https://doi.org/10.5271/sjweh.1036 Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2017). Organizational Behavior, Global Edition (17th ed.). Pearson. Singh, R. (2016). The Impact of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators on Employee Engagement in Information Organizations. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 57(2), 197–206. https://doi.org/10.3138/jelis.57.2.197 Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1985). Shedding light on the Hawthorne studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 6(2), 111–130. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.4030060203
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