The Hawthorne studies were conducted between 1927 and 1932 at Western Electric`s Hawthorne plant near Chicago. (General Electric initially sponsored the research but withdrew its support after the first study was finished.) Several researchers were involved, the best known being Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger, Harvard faculty members and consultants, and William Dickson, chief of Hawthorne`s Employee Relations Research Department.

The first major experiment at Hawthorne studied the effects of different levels of lighting on productivity. The researchers systematically manipulated the lighting in the area in which a group of women worked. The group`s productivity was measured and compared with that of another group (the control group) whose lighting was left unchanged. As lighting was increased for the experimental group, productivity went up-but, interestingly, so did the productivity of the control group. Even when lighting was subsequently reduced, the productivity of both groups continued to increase. Not until the lighting had become almost as dim as moonlight did productivity start to decline. This led the researchers to conclude that lighting had no relationship to productivity-and at this point General Electric withdrew its sponsorship of the project!

In another major experiment, a piecework incentive system was established for a nine-man group that assembled terminal banks for telephone exchanges. Proponents of scientific management expected each man to work as hard as he could to maximize his personal income. But the Hawthorne researchers found instead that the group as a whole established an acceptable level of output of its members. Individuals who failed to meet this level were dubbed "chiselers," and those who exceeded it by too much were branded "rate busters." A worker who wanted to be accepted by the group could not produce at too high or too low a level. Thus, as a worker approached the accepted level each day, he slowed down to avoid overproducing.

After a follow-up interview program with several thousand workers, the Hawthorne researchers concluded that the human element in the workplace was considerably more important that previously believed. The lighting experiment, for example, suggested that productivity might increase simply because workers were singled out for special treatment and thus perhaps felt more valued or more pressured to perform well. In the incentive system experiment, being accepted as a part of the group evidently meant more to the workers than earning extra money. Several other studies supported the general conclusion that individual and social processes are too important to ignore.

Like the work of Taylor, the Hawthorne studies have recently been called into question. Critics cite deficiencies in research methods and offer alternative explanations of the findings. Again, however, these studies were a major factor in the advancement of organizational behavior and are still among its most frequently cited works.

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