George Elton Mayo was an Australian who became one of the best-known management theorists after his experimental work on employee motivation in the 1920’s and 30’s. Mayo was a lecturer at the University of Queensland when he decided to move to the University of Pennsylvania in America in 1923 and then to the Harvard Business School in 1926 where he became professor of industrial research. It was from here that he took on the research that was to make him one of the most famous names in management history.
Elton Mayo and the Hawthorne Experiments
Mayo’s reputation as a management guru rests on the Hawthorne Experiments which he conducted from 1927 to 1932 at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). The factory employed mainly women workers who assembled telephone cabling equipment. The aim of the study was to establish the impact of different conditions of work on employee productivity. Initially, Mayo examined the affect of changes in the factory environment such as lighting and humidity. He then went on to study the effect of changes in employment arrangements such as breaks, hours, and managerial leadership. Not only were the Hawthorne experiments the first large-scale studies of working people’s conditions ever made; they also produced a range of remarkable results that changed the face of people management.
The Astonishing Results of the Relay Assembly Room Experiments
Although Elton Mayo and his team conducted the Hawthorne Experiments over a number of years, it is his work with 6 women workers in the relay assembly room that made his name. Throughout the series of experiments, one of Mayo’s team sat with the girls as they worked, noting everything they did, keeping them up-to-date with the experiment, asking for clarification, and listening to their views. The experiment began by introducing carefully controlled changes, each of which was continued for a test period of 4 to 12 weeks. The results of these changes were as follows:
- Under normal conditions, with a 48-hour week, including Saturdays, and no breaks, the girls produced 2,400 relays a week each.
- They were then put on piece-work for 8 weeks. Output went up.
- Two 5-minute rest pauses, morning and afternoon, were introduced for a period of 5 weeks. Output went up once more.
- The rest pauses were lengthened to 10 minutes each. Output went up sharply.
- Six 5-minute pauses were introduced, and the girls complained that their work rhythm was broken by the frequent pauses. Output fell slightly.
- The 2 rest pauses were re-instated, the first with a hot meal supplied by the Company free of charge. Output went up.
- The girls finished at 4.30 pm instead of 5.00 pm. Output went up.
- The girls finished at 4.00 pm. Output remained the same.
- Finally, all the improvements were taken away, and the girls went back to the same conditions that they had at the beginning of the experiment: work on Saturday, 48-hour week, no rest pauses, no piece work and no free meal. These conditions lasted for a period of 12 weeks. Output was the highest ever recorded with the girls averaging 3000 relays a week each.
Conclusions of the Hawthorne Experiments
It took Elton Mayo some time to work through the results of his Hawthorne Experiments, particularly the seemingly illogical results of the Relay Assembly room experiments. His main conclusion was that the prevailing view of the time, that people went to work purely for money and a living, was deeply flawed. Work was much more. It was first and foremost a group activity in which other people and their behaviour, be they colleagues, managers or observers, affected how well people worked. People’s morale and productivity were affected not so much by the conditions in which they worked but by the recognition they received. The rises in productivity in the Relay Assembly Room were achieved under the interested eye of the observers not because the conditions made the workers feel good but because the workers felt valued.
This is a study on how to increase productivity that produced some fascinating results for the researchers who were involved in carrying it out.
It is important to remember that this occurred at a time when industrialization was in full force in the U.S. and elsewhere and increasingly production and its organization were becoming objects of study by management scientists, such as Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) whose purpose was to make production more efficient and thereby to increase productivity.
The Hawthorne studies followed in a similar manner to Taylor by studying how the physical environment could affect productivity; changes to lighting and humidity were made as well as increased number of breaks and free meals.
Productivity increased dramatically, but when work reverted to the previous system, productivity continued to be high.
The research concluded that the activity of the researchers had directly influenced the results of the study. Money was not the only motivation for work; the interaction with managers and co-workers affected productivity as workers felt valued for their opinions and contributions.
Piece-work: a system of paying someone according to number of things produced, as opposed to paying per hour.
Lengthened: to extend or make longer.
Work through: to finish working on something.
Flawed: a fault or weakness.
Work through is a phrasal verb. Here are some others with the main verb work.
Work for: to be employed by.
Work against: to put effort into opposing something, e.g. some members of the party are working against changes to the law.
Work towards: to direct one´s efforts to achieving something, e.g. we are working towards an agreement.
Work round the clock: to work all day and all night.