Lachezar Stamatov: The Hawthorne Effect and the origin of team building

Team building activities are now widely accepted as a given in companies big and small, but they have actually enjoyed a relatively short history. Before the idea of such activities came to fruition, first the concept of a team had to be formed.

It is certainly an interesting and useful thing to look at how that happened. Sometimes when companies organise team building activities, they do it simply because everyone else is doing it, too. But if you look back into history to see why they were invented in the first place, you’ll be able to better organise team events that have a clear purpose and achieve tangible results.

With this in mind, let’s go back to the 1920s and look at the work of Elton Mayo, an organisational theorist widely regarded as the pioneer of social experiments dealing with employee behavior.

The Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne Studies are a series of experiments conducted by Elton Mayo in the years between 1924 and 1932 at the Western Electric factory in Illinois, also called Hawthorne Works. 

The study was originally focused on manipulating levels of light working environment, in order to find out if that would have any effect on workers’ productivity. Workers were split into two groups. The experimenters incrementally increased the intensity of the lights for the first group, while the working conditions of the second group (the control group) remained the same. A marked increase in the productivity of the first group was observed.

Later, the experimenters introduced additional variables, such as reduced working hours and more breaks, and again they led to increased productivity.

But then, an odd thing happened. Productivity in the first group would increase even after the lights were dimmed. In fact, productivity remained high for the whole duration of the experiment, after which it started to gradually drop down again. Can you guess why that was?

The Hawthorne Effect

After a careful analysis of his data, Mayo couldn’t help but admit that what he observed was not a direct effect of the particular variables he introduced. Rather, productivity improved due to the unintended effects of the experiment’s set-up.

The workers increased the effort they put into their work simply because their managers were showing an interest in their well-being and a willingness to improve their working conditions. Productivity was also boosted by the mere change of environment, because it acted as a break in the routine of their daily work. The combination of the resulting change of behavior came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect.

Of course, it would be foolish to think that these were the only reasons for what the researchers saw. The change in productivity was also ascribed to the fact that somebody was there, observing the workers. That’s why sometimes the Hawthorne Effect is referred to as the Observer Effect.

Team Building Implications

Other parts of the Hawthorne Studies made even more important discoveries related to teams and team building.

As part of one of the experiments, Mayo and his colleagues chose two female workers and asked them, in their turn, to choose four more. The six women formed a work group, which had a separate room and a seventh person who was placed to supervise their work. Their behavior was observed for a period of five years. A control group of randomly selected female workers was also observed for comparison. All the women had to assemble telephone relays, so the number of relays they made each day was taken as a measure of their productivity.

Like the original experiment, additional variables were also manipulated. The first group had shorter workdays, more breaks and free food during them. Productivity was boosted, but Mayo was once again unable to reduce this result simply to the nature of the changes. For comparison, productivity at the control group remained unchanged.

In the end, Mayo concluded that what caused the upshift in productivity was that the six women were now part of one team and had a sense of belonging. And since they became close, the workers didn’t want to look bad in the eyes of others and increased their output.

Mayo seems to be right, because once the experiment was over, the women were interviewed and they admitted that the close and intimate atmosphere of the smaller group created a feeling of freedom, which they couldn’t enjoy on the big assembly line. And since they were able to talk to each other, they formed a long-lasting friendship. If that’s not enough to convince you, listen to this: the productivity of that team continued to rise even after the end of the experiment.

Conclusion

While Mayo’s experiments were not without their critics, their significance remains even today. When higher management ignores the human factor in any company, negative effects are immediately observed.

As an HR practitioner, have you been able to observe the significance of a good team? What techniques are you using to keep your employees motivated? We would love it if you shared you experience with us by leaving us a comment below.

Written by Lachezar Stamatov who is a recent Psychology graduate with interests spanning across various fields. He loves blogging about human relations and recruitment practices. He’s a regular contributor to the Off Limits blog

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