It started two years before The Great Depression, and the impact on what we know about management can’t be understated. Management and the Worker seems to share the insights that were discovered at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works based in Chicago, and it’s strangely richer than most of us may have been led to believe.

A Different Time

For those reading the book today, they’ll be struck by many things that would not be politically acceptable today. The workers – operators – in the relay assembly test room are repeatedly called “girls,” not women, workers, or operators. Such was the expectation then. There were jobs that women did and different jobs that men did, and it was reasonable to refer to them by gender.

In was also a time when graduating high school wasn’t common. Many of the operators didn’t finish high school, much less attend college. There were several cases documented in the book where the operators would turn over their wages to the family to help support the family unit and more than a few cases where the operator left school to get a job to help support the family.

Even back then, there was the conversation about the increasing demand for higher education, both completing high school and going to college. The concern was raised that it would become a requirement for someone to complete college to get a job, and that would eliminate the ability of poor folks to get jobs.

More interesting was the concept that single women could have jobs but that married women were taking jobs from men who needed a job to support their family. While this was at times overt, there were many cases where a societal pressure to discriminate against working married women was apparent. There were even negative comments shaped around the need for married couples to eat at a restaurant because the woman was too tired to cook.

The standard work week back then was 48 hours. This included a half day on Saturday. There was no expectation of a 40-hour week and the transition to a 40-hour week – and the resulting reduction in wages – was an unfortunate result of the Depression and the reduction of demand.

I address these here, because I want to both draw attention to the discrepancies and to explicitly share that the challenges we face with motivation of employees and the broader context of the employment relationship isn’t a sign of today’s times. It’s always been with us – we’ve just not seen it.

The Observer Effect

This book is largely focused after the famous illumination experiments that drove Hawthorne Works to be largely synonymous with the observer effect. The observer effect says that people will behave differently when they know they’re being watched. This truism has been extended and adapted over time, including “You get what you measure,” variations of which have been assigned to both Edward Deming and Peter Drucker.

The famous experiments that made the Hawthorne Works famous were variations in lighting that were done to measure the impact of lighting on performance. When lighting was increased, productivity increased. When lighting was decreased, productivity was again increased. This caused the experimenters to realize that they were unintentionally introducing another variable to the experiment. Later, they’d change bulbs with new bulbs of the same wattage. Employees were expecting increases or decreases, so they commented on these expected increases or decreases rather than recognizing that the lighting level hadn’t changed at all.

The experiments were initiated because the company was interested in how to increase productivity, and the results only spurred further interest in the way that employees worked. If the observer effect was so powerful, what other powerful forces were being left undiscovered?

The Relay Assembly Test Room

One of the many functions performed by the Hawthorne Works was the assembly of relays. Relays are electromechanical devices that are used in switching – particularly the kind of switching that was needed to operate the telephone network. The assembly operations were typically done with many operators in a large, open area. A particular section of relay assembly operators might be 100 people. To test changes in working conditions and their relationship to productivity, the Hawthorne Works pulled five volunteer operators into a specially-designed room where the conditions of work could be changed without affecting the entire group.

Care was taken to minimize the differences between the main room and the new relay test room. The intent was to have a controlled experiment, where only the changes in the working environment that the experimenters were testing would influence the results. However, what they discovered was that they unintentionally introduced major changes by separating the operators.

Social Loafing

The Evolution of Cooperation and Collaboration both speak about social loafing – or the tendency for people to slack off in a group expecting others to carry their weight. However, the effect wasn’t well known at the time of the Hawthorne Works experiments. What wasn’t realized was the extent to which the compensation system allowed for social loafing to occur, nor were they aware of how to establish countervailing forces to keep social loafing in check.

The details of the payment system for workers is largely irrelevant, but what is important is that one component of their pay was based on the productivity of the group. That is, if everyone performed well, then there would be more money in everyone’s paycheck. The problem with this is that, when spread across 100 workers, no one felt as if their individual contribution was enough to make a difference. The result is that some of the workers would loaf, because they didn’t expect that they could make a difference in their pay.

When the operators were moved into the relay assembly test room, their pool went from a pool of 100 to a pool of 5. That meant that individual performance did matter; not only that, the group norm was also something that could be influenced.

Forming a Group

One of the other side effects of the changes was that the group naturally formed into a group operating unit. That is, they started to look out for and support one another. They intentionally tried to cover for each other’s poor days and genuinely cared for their fellow workers. This wasn’t an intentional byproduct of the change – nor was it replicable in further experiments – but the fact that the group became an operating unit had a profound effect on productivity. The relay assembly test room’s productivity kept climbing even as the experimental conditions continued to be changed in ways that should have had a negative effect on productivity.

Subsequent test rooms with similar conditions never formed a group and therefore didn’t see the continuous rise in productivity. This was likely influenced by the design of these other rooms, which specifically did not change the compensation in a way that made the room’s participants dependent upon each other and solely on each other. In other words, they sought to avoid solving the social loafing problems – and in doing so, they may have prevented the group from forming.

Group Formation

It’s time to side-step the material in the book for a moment and share the work of Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence. He was focused on how you brought people together and got them to function together as a team. He would have said that the test rooms created at Hawthorne Works would not have fallen into his criteria as a team, because they weren’t performing interrelated tasks. They formed a group identity, because, in the case of the relay room, they felt a responsibility to one another. They didn’t have the benefit of some of the way that Navy SEALs train together nor the life and death circumstances. (See Stealing Fire for more.)

The personalities and perspectives were such in the relay assembly test room that they spontaneously formed a group. Some of this may have been the wedding of one of the operators, forming a bond, or the personality of another operator to push everyone towards working together. There’s no one single cause; instead, the set of conditions were sufficient that it happened.

Allowances

Another unintended change in the test room was the change in supervision. While the operators were formally still supervised by the supervision structure of the main room, unofficially they were being managed by the experimental observer – and the relationship was very different. Instead of the kind of command and control experienced in the main room, the operators were treated with concern and compassion. One of the controls for the tests were the health of the employees, so their health was monitored.

Another was the ability to talk. While this at times exceeded the comfort level of both the observer and the individual operators, the ability to talk while they were working was greatly appreciated. While studies for fatigue were generally not successful in discovering fatigue, the ability to talk to one another was helpful in breaking up some of the monotony.

To frame this in the context of Reinventing Organizations, the test room was operating in Orange instead of Amber. The workers felt like there was a relationship to management instead of a competition with management in a struggle for power.

Power Struggle

Readily apparent and frequently repeated were the concerns that the test room was a front for management to squeeze more performance out of the workers – instead of the stated objective of providing optimum working conditions. The difference is subtle but important. If they’re just trying to improve performance, the organization can do so at the expense of the workers. If they’re trying to create optimal conditions, the workers must be inside the circle of considerations.

Concerns about whether the workers were being taken advantage of – or things were moving in that direction – was a persistent theme both in the relay assembly test room and in the subsequent tests that the organization embarked upon. The lack of trust of the worker with the organization was palpable.

While the test room continued to make progress in allaying those fears, it seems as if they were never really fully quenched. As a result, there would be, from time to time, situations where it became necessary to revisit the intent, purpose, and mission associated with the tests.

More for Less

One curious way where working less generated more productive output was the introduction of paid breaks to the schedule. Breaks were added, thus reducing the total time working, and the output still increased. The given explanation for this was that the operators were trying to compensate for the time they were being given.

However, there’s another more subtle factor here. Operators were allowed personal time for their biological needs, and though they weren’t asked to, they tended to use a portion of their break times for these purposes. In this way, it seems that when management – or in this case, the experimenters – gave something the workers gave back.

The introduction of breaks was very well received personally, thus it seems that the workers were willing to work harder during their normal work periods to continue to be allowed the privilege of the breaks. Being an experiment, they were removed for a time, and this predictably resulted in the workers looking forward to their return.

The Mica Splitting Test Room

Because the relay assembly test room was such a success, there were attempts to replicate the results without the complicating factor of changing compensation. The results were not as dramatic, but there were external factors, which likely impacted the situation.

By the time the mica splitting test room was created, the Depression was already in effect. It has created a reduction in demand for all things, including the kinds of parts that the Hawthorne works was creating. In part due to this reduction in demand, the mica splitting function was gradually being moved to another plant. This impacted the folks in the main room more rapidly than in the test room, but eventually there was no longer a way to shield the test room from the changes.

However, before the room was shut down, it was already apparent that the fear of losing their job was reducing worker productivity. As the concern for mica-splitting jobs increased, their performance decreased.

However, another key difference was evident in the mica splitting test room. The five operators never fully integrated as a group. While there are some personality reasons for this, there was also the fact that their compensation never got tied to the group in the test room. They were still compensated in part by what was happening in the main room.

Interviewing

Management and the Worker concludes with a review of the interviewing that was done in the plant and its impact. A significant effort was undertaken to listen to workers at every level and to ensure that their perspectives were captured appropriately. Despite the fact that there was never any real intent to act upon these interviews, the workers reported that conditions were improving.

This reaction reveals how just listening to employees discuss their concerns has a twofold effect on improving the situation. First, supervisors, knowing that the workers are being listened to, made changes to their behaviors – consciously or unconsciously. This resolved many of the concerns.

Secondly, and more importantly, there seemed to be a psychic discharge, where once the items were heard, they were of less concern in the mind of the worker. The net effect of which was that the workers felt better – whether the conditions changed or not.

It may be that there’s still a lot to learn from experiments that were performed 90 years ago. It may reveal more about the relationship between Management and the Worker.