Staff under the microscope

Go on, admit it: you think happier workers are more productive, don’t you? Of course you do. It is an article of faith not just for personnel managers, but also for liberal democratic capitalism as a whole. We all need to believe it. The implications of a divorce between output and work satisfaction are too much for our market-ordered sensibilities to bear.

Yet from the early days of the profession, the relationship between ‘humanising’ the workplace and productivity has always been burdened with a deep uncertainty. Eighty years ago next month, the most famous motivation experiments began at Western Electric Company’s 25,000-strong Hawthorne plant in Chicago. Between 1924 and 1932, five sets of detailed tests were carried out in an attempt to understand what made workers assembling telephone equipment more productive.

Experiments initially concentrated on improvements to lighting and humidity. Productivity duly improved. But it carried on improving when the lights were dimmed so much that it became difficult to see. Baffled, the company ordered further experiments. From 1927, the tests were expanded to look at pay and incentives, rest periods, hours of work, supervision and work pace. Once again, productivity increases were recorded that bore little relation to inputs. At the end, productivity was 46 per cent higher than five years earlier.

To explain this, the official histories of the Hawthorne experiments – Elton Mayo’s The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization and Fritz Roethlisberger and William Dick-son’s Management and the Worker – built on two theories that have gone on to have a vast influence on the field of human resources.

One was that the very fact of being involved in an experiment spurred the workers to be more productive. It brought novelty and status to repetitive work, while managers began taking an interest in how employees felt.

Between 1928 and 1930, some 20,000 employees were interviewed by teams of social anthropologists, who noted the cathartic effect of questioning – though some workers did complain of the intrusion, especially when asked for details of their menstrual cycles and family lives. To this day, the term ‘Hawthorne effect’ refers to how the act of observation can alter the activity being measured.

The second conclusion was that because the experiment involved bringing workers together in tightly-knit teams, and allowing them a congenial relationship with a supervisor, social stimulation had a critical effect on motivation. The human relations school was born.

The histories may have been both official and influential, but that has not stopped them being subject to wave upon wave of reinterpretation. In particular, Mayo has come in for much criticism. He believed his personal mission to be that of a humane reformer of the harshness and tedium of factory work. Yet he was also of a profoundly conservative outlook.

In Mayo’s research among textile workers in Philadelphia during the early 1920s, he had argued that industrial conflict was the result of ‘underlying reveries’ brought about by poor adaptation to the work environment. Improve working conditions, especially through rest periods, he contended, and productivity would rise, due to the decline in fatigue-related ‘melancholy preoccupations’.

Mayo’s keenness to develop this work-conditions thesis was evident in his account of Hawthorne. Persistently, he played down the impact of a generous team incentive scheme introduced to ensure co-operation with the experiments, in favour of arguments about social interaction.

Similarly, analysing the last of the experiments carried out between 1931 and 1932 – before the Great Depression put an end to the fun – Mayo was struck by how men appeared to limit production to what they considered to be a good day’s work, irrespective of bonus arrangements. In effect, a social norm restricted output, as well as guaranteeing a minimum.

Mayo interpreted these results to argue there was an inevitable tension between workers motivated by the logic of sentiment, and managers motivated by the logic of cost and efficiency. Individual effort therefore needed channelling to serve managerial interests – an idea that chimed with fascist tenets about the desire of the masses to conform to elite-inspired norms.

Subsequent generations of academics have gorged on Hawthorne re-readings. Sixties’ Marxists and orthodox economists both agreed that Hawthorne’s productivity rises merely proved the primacy of economic incentives – the Great Depression induced widespread fear of redundancy.

In the 1970s, some argued that daily performance feedback created a learning environment that made workers quicker. In the 1980s, there was a brief move to defend the original conclusions about co-operative group culture.

But by the 1990s, a book called Manufacturing Knowledge argued there could never be any definitive facts unblemished by personal prejudices and financial interests. Others have even suggested that Hawthorne marked the springboard for a wholly infernal corporate agenda. “The minutiae of the human soul had emerged as a new domain for management,” commented one writer.

There is another kind of Hawthorne effect that remains apparent today. However convinced HR professionals are about the relationship between their actions and the responses of employees, they tend to be sparing in their use of words such as ‘proof’, ‘fact’ and ’cause’.

Wisely, HR deals in the currency of correlations; often interesting correlations, or better still, striking correlations. It is the foolhardy who wander into the minefield of cause and effect, because, as the Hawthorne researchers noted, all conclusions about human behaviour should be provisional. In HR, convictions frequently trump facts.

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