Why a Study of 5 Working Women in the 1920s Changed Your Work Life

Last Updated Aug 6, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

In the 1920s researchers descended on the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. Their mission was to look at how environmental conditions such as lighting levels made workers more or less productive.

But the research quickly uncovered a paradox. When illumination was increased, productivity went up. But when the light was decreased, even down to the level of moonlight, productivity increased again.

What was going on here?

The answers changed the direction of both sociological and management research. At its highest level the Hawthorne Effect is simply a recognition that if you are observed, your behavior will change. (Researchers still debate whether this focused attention leads to productivity increases, however).

But the studies were also one of the first times that workers were viewed as part of a larger social system, not just as unfeeling automatons. This research has led modern-day companies to look less for ways to control employees and more at methods of unleashing their creativity.

The BBC recently did a report on the Hawthorne Studies, including a visit to Harvard Business School, where many of the original research materials are stored. ( Harvard Business School researchers Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger were instrumental in the research.)

Listen to the report, The Hawthorne Effect.

How important is the social system at work to your own productivity?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.