Hawthorne effect

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Hawthorne effect

a term derived from the Hawthorne investigations (see HUMAN RELATIONS SCHOOL), in which the conduct of experiments produced changes in the behaviour of subjects because, firstly, they knew they were being observed, and, secondly, investigators developed friendly relationships with them. In the first instance, the Hawthorne effect made sense of the otherwise puzzling experimental finding of an inverse relationship between illumination (environmental change) and employee output. In the second instance, the attempt to assess the impact of a range of variables on the performance of employees, who were removed from their normal work situation, was rendered problematic, partly because over time investigators adopted a friendly supervisory relationship with the subjects. The difficulty in disentangling the effects of poorly controlled changes on the observed improvement in employee output was controversially resolved in favour of stressing the significance of employee preference for friendly supervision of cohesive and informal work groups. Indeed, this finding became the main platform in the prescriptions which human relations theorists proposed for effective management.

In both of the cases described above, the Hawthorne effect was associated with the way in which subjects interpreted and responded to poorly controlled experimental changes. As the researchers became aware of the need to consider the ways in which employees interpreted their work situation, other techniques of investigation, such as interviews and observation of natural settings, were adopted. Nevertheless, all of the phases in the research programme have been subjected to criticism, as has the interpretation of the findings (M. Rose, 1988). See also UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL ACTION.