Critique of the Hawthorne Experiments

Written by Fritz J. Roethlisberger (1898 – 1974), The Hawthorne Experiments, explores the experiments, results and conclusions of studies performed at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company. The Hawthorne Effect is the theory that resulted from the studies. Roethlisberger, a key member of the team, joined the team in 1927 and actively participated in the research until 1936, first as Elton Mayo’s assistant and later as his collaborator (Roethlisberger, 2007).
Roethlisberger earned a BA in engineering from Columbia University, a BS in engineering administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a MA in philosophy from Harvard University (Roethlisberger, 2007). When Roethlisberger became Elton Mayo’s assistant and a member of the Harvard Business School Department of Industrial Research, his studies towards a PhD in philosophy were halted (Roethlisberger, 2007).
Roethlisberger held multiple positions while at Harvard University including: Instructor of Industrial Research (1927-1930), Assistant Professor of Industrial Research (1930-1938), Associate Professor of Industrial Research (1938-1946); and Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Human Relations (1950-1974) (Roethlisberger, 2007). Roethlisberger also served as a consultant to the Training within Industry Program of the U. S. Governments Office of Production Management from 1941 to 1942 (Roethlisberger, 2007). Roethlisberger is also responsible for multiple other essays and books including, “Man-in-Organization: Essays of F. J. Roethlisberger” (1968), “Counseling in an Organization; A Sequel to the Hawthorne Researches (1966)”, and “Management and Morale” (1941) (Biography – Fritz, 2010). Critique The article uses the experiments performed at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company as illustration to prove Roethlisberger’s theory. He wrote: It is my simple thesis that a human problem requires a human solution. First, we have to learn to recognize a human problem when we see one; and second, upon recognizing it, we have to learn to deal with it as such and not as if it were something else.

Too often at the verbal level we talk glibly about the importance of the human factor; and too seldom at the concrete level of behavior do we recognize a human problem for what it is and deal with it as such (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 30). Roethlisberger also said, “A human problem to be brought to a human solution requires human data and human tools (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 30). Again the results from these experiments reiterated Roethlisberger’s theory of treating human problems with human solutions.
There were multiple experiments performed at the Hawthorne plant. “In the illumination experiments…we have a classic example of trying to deal with a human situation in nonhuman terms (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 31). The illumination studies were performed from 1924 until 1927 and were to study the effect of lighting changes on employee productivity (Kirchner, 1992). Within this experiment, various degrees of illumination were experimented on a ‘test’ group and most of the experiments performed on the group showed an increase of productivity.
According to Roethlisberger, “in still another experiment, the workers were allowed to believe that the illumination was being increased, although, in fact, no change in intensity was made” (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 31). Again the researchers saw an increase in productivity. Some of the researchers were beginning to develop their basic ideas and assumptions with regard to human motivation (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 31). In the next set of experiments, also known as the Relay Assembly Test Room Experiments, Western Electric Company drew support from Harvard researchers.
The experiments (with five young women from the Relay Assembly room of the plant) involved manipulated a number of factors including, pay incentives, length of workday and work week, and the use of rest period (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p 32). While researchers kept tons of data regarding this experiment, including the temperature and humidity of the room and the amount of slept each women had the night prior, the physical changes had little change on the productivity (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, pp. 32 – 34).
The experiments at the Hawthorne Plant continued with interviewing the actual employees. These interviews began in 1928 and were the “first real attempt to get human data and to forge human tools to get them” (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 35). In the beginning of the interviewing process, the interviewers found it difficult to not input their feelings, advice, etc into the interviews (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 35). Over time and with practice: They discovered that sooner or later a person tends to talk about what is uppermost in his mind to a sympathetic and skillful listener.
And they become more proficient in interpreting what a person is say or trying to say (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p 35). It was the data from these experiments that supported the research of the Harvard team and lead them to conclude that productivity increase when management/supervisors began to pay attention to their employees. In the final set of experiments at the Hawthorne Plant, also described as the Bank Wiring Observation Group (1931-1932), researchers observed a group of employees that represented three occupational groups – wiremen, soldermen, and inspectors (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 8).
All of the work done in this room was piece work and what the researchers discovered while observing was” To be an accepted member of the group a man had to act in accordance with these [the] social standards. One man in this group exceeded the group standard of what constituted a fair day’s work. Social pressure was put on him to conform, but without avail, since he enjoyed doing things the other disliked. The best-liked person in the group was the one who kept his output exactly where the group agreed it should be (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 8) It was these observations that lead the researchers to the conclusion: informal groups operate in the work environment. According to Roethlisberger, “most of us want the satisfaction that comes from being accepted and recognized as people of worth by friends and works associated. Money is only a small part of this social recognition (Natemeyer & McMahon, 2001, p. 39)” Despite the modern criticism the Hawthorne research receives, the studies changed the landscape permanently.
These experiments help disprove, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of scientific management. According to his theory, management should scientifically design the job, scientifically select and train the right worker, reward for performance (Dessler & Phillips, 2008, p. 12). The study at the Hawthorne plant shows that management can not be a separate identity in the workplace but needs to be actively involved and available to employees. While the findings of the Hawthorne Experiments disproved Taylor’s theory they do support Abraham Maslow’s theories.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he points out there is more to motivation and an enjoyable workplace, then a paycheck. According to his theory, an employee has numerous needs including: physiological needs (food, water, etc), safety and security needs, social needs, self esteem, and self actualization (Dessler and Phillips, 2008, p. 12). In these experiments, the employees included in the group received more attention and were included into ‘special’ social groups. Today’s Workplace Fritz J. Roethlisberger’s conclusions from the Hawthorne Experiments are still relevant in today’s workplace. Employees need to feel as though they are a member of a group and their thoughts and opinions matter to the company they work for. While some researchers criticize the Hawthorne Experiments, the experiments, flawed or not, point to a key point – the employees in the Hawthorne experiment were pleased and thrived when receiving attention from the researchers. As Roethlisberger, pointed out one can not solve human problems or concerns without a human solution and he is correct.
Social needs, self esteem needs, and self actualization needs, as defined by Maslow, are all human needs and can not be completed or satisfied with changed lighting, rest periods, increased pay, etc – they need human interaction and human solutions. These needs are even more important in our society and many companies do recognize these. Many companies now offer mentoring programs, employee groups (including health committee, activity committees, etc), rewards, and acknowledgement programs. When employees are made to feel special their physical and intellectual performance improves and thus a company will experience success.

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