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Human Problems Require Human Solutions

As I have said before, stories are an important leadership tool. In the world of management and leadership education, several stories are consistently used for teaching purposes. These stories help learners remember important points and, at times, seem like fables. Often the finer points are left out and the takeaways appear to be more moralistic than scientific. One story that is told over and again is that of the experiments at the Western Electric Company. While the moral that is usually taught through this fable is important, the conclusions that often fall by the wayside are even more interesting.

Early in the 20th century at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant, a number of scientists did some pretty odd experiments. In one, they examined the effect lighting conditions had on productivity and quality by separating workers into groups. In one group there were no changes from their normal routine, while in the other, the workspace illumination was repeatedly changed. The results of this study confounded the researchers. Both groups immediately increased their productivity. Whether they lowered the lights or made it brighter, productivity increased. In fact, productivity did not decrease until the lights were lowered to the same level as moonlight. When the workers were told the lighting was increased they commented on the better conditions and when they were told the lighting was decreased, they complained about the changes – even if there was no change in the lighting. All of this led to some very bewildered scientists.

In a different area of the company another study isolated two female workers and changed aspects of their job. Over time, the experimenters gave these two women more breaks, a shorter work week, and even gave them specially prepared lunches. There was a lot of attention paid to these two women and they were often asked how they felt about the changes. It is probably no surprise their production rates went up. In order to examine these effects further, the researchers undid the changes in the women’s work environments. They went back to a 48 hour work week (these experiments took place in the 20s and 30s before unions won a 40 hour week) with no breaks and no special lunches. It would make sense to think their productivity sank back down to prior levels, or perhaps even lower than where it had started. This, however, was not the case. No, the increased levels of productivity persisted. It seems to me they must have put something very strange in the water at the Western Electric Company.

The Hawthorne researchers continued doing experiment after experiment and found these crazy results each time. Though they never explored my tainted water hypothesis, the scientists came up with an interesting conclusion which is now referred to as the “Hawthorne Effect.” As explained by one of the original researchers, Fritz Roethlisberger:

If one experiments on a stone, the stone does not know it is being experimented upon – all of which makes it simple for people experimenting on stones. But if a human being is being experimented upon, he is likely to know it. Therefore, his attitudes toward the experiment and toward the experimenters become very important factors in determining his responses to the situation.

This is one form of what social scientists call reactivity: if you use people as subjects in an experiment, their behavior changes, not only in response to the experimental manipulation, but also in response to the mere fact that they are being observed. This was only one of the conclusions Roethlisberger came to following the Western Electric experiments. While it is the most famous conclusion, I don’t think it is the most compelling. Roethlisberger also says:

Inadvertently a change had been introduced which was far more important than the planned experimental innovations: the customary supervision in the room had been revolutionized. This accounted for the better attitudes of the girls and their improved rate of work.

and he later goes on to state:

What all their (the researchers) experiments had dramatically and conclusively demonstrated was the importance of employee attitudes and sentiments… In most work situations the meaning of a change is likely to be as important, if not more so, than the change itself.

Writing in 1941 Roethlisberger knew the meaning workers attached to managerial interventions was the most important aspect of any change. He knew simply paying attention to people and asking them about their needs and their experience of the work environment can increase productivity. Who knew “management by walking around” has been a best practice for more than 70 years? To me, this is the most interesting part of the Hawthorne experiments. As Roethlisberger states, “human problems require human solutions.” In other word, let’s not treat people like stones.

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