“There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’… It is not necessary for the intellect to fall into the trap, though {…} there has been a very general tendency to do so.” Science and the Modern World, 1926, Alfred North Whitehead.

The Hawthorne Experiments: “the great éclaircissement”:

Mention “Hawthorne Experiments” at a cocktail party and chances are some wise-crack will ask you trying turning up the lights to get the party going. Jokes apart the experiments done at the Hawthorne Works were extraordinary in the sheer scale and the time duration. The experiments represent a major milestone in the rise of the ‘Human Relations Movement’ and also the shift of ‘management’ from a linear ‘scientific’ approach to a multidisciplinary one.

Hawthorne Works (circa 1920)
Aerial view of the Hawthorne Works, circa 1920

It all started a long time ago in Cicero, Illinois. The Western Electric Hawthorne Works was the manufacturing unit of the AT&T conglomerate in the early 1900’s. Sprawling over 100 acres, it employed over 40,000 men and women at its huge manufacturing facility which had offices, factories, a hospital, a fire brigade, laundry facilities and even a greenhouse! (Talk about employee benefits)

A simple electro-mechanical relay
A simple electro-mechanical relay

Remember, this was the time when factories were getting larger, and ‘work’ had evolved from beyond heavy lifting in mines and railroads to specialized tasks like assembling cars, planes and yes, telecom equipment like relays. If you were to stroll down one of these large complexes, it would be busy like a beehive – vast rooms with people sitting in lines, assembling parts of larger machinery and placing them on conveyer belts or pushing them down chutes.  To get a sense of the scale of the operation – Western Electric produced over 7 Million relays annually. And then there were pins, springs, armatures, insulators, coils, wires, screws and dozens of other parts that went into making the AT&T phone network tick.

Companies like Western Electric had a special reason to be interested in the productivity of each and every employee on their vast assembly lines and the company was one of the forerunners in using the principles of Taylor’s Scientific Management.  (See the first post in this series) In the 1920’s, with support from the National Research Council, the Rockefeller foundation and Harvard Business school, the company started a series of behavioral studies involving various factors that could have an effect on employee productivity. In experiments lasting a total of nine years factors like the effect of illumination, rest periods, work hours, wage incentives, dynamics of a smaller work force, the special attention the control group received et al. were studied.

A brilliant insight that the researchers had over the course of the study was that when, instead of asking direct questions, they let the employees speak openly they expressed themselves more candidly. Tens of thousands of interviews were conducted over the duration of the studies and the data gathered is still being analyzed.

They say figures don’t lie, but we have shown that we can take a set of figures and prove anything we want to. – Donald Chipman, Supervisor, Western Electric, 1931

While the studies and the resultant conclusions were seminal it wasn’t all bouquets for the researchers when the results were published. Some of the conclusions drawn came in for severe criticism from other scientists – particularly the illumination studies (now you know what the joke was about) and the observation that subjects changed their performance in response to the fact that they were being observed – the so called “Hawthorne Effect”.

But what the studies did bring out, was radical for its times. Ideas that lay foundations for studies into job satisfaction, group norms, motivational influence and leadership all stemmed from the data that the experiments generated. It also gave rise to the “modern application of social science” at the workplace and in addition to the human relations movement also laid the foundations for the field of organizational behavior.

For the first time since the beginning of the industrial age, there was a conscious study that focused on the separation of man from the machine.  There was an acceptance that there was more to what affected the motivation of employees than just the paycheck.

Henry Murray and his “System of Needs”:

Henry_MurrayA few years after the results of the Hawthorne Studies were published, Henry  Murray published his classic work – “Explorations in Personality”.  In his research, Murray uncovered the concepts of latent needs, manifest needs, press – the effect of external influence on motivation and thema – a pattern of press and needs that “coalesce around particular interactions.”

In his book, Murray outlined his system of describing people’s personality in terms of their needs. He listed a set of universal basic needs and then recognized that each person will have a different preference set among those needs. He also theorized that it’s when these individual needs are not met that people develop ‘psychological pain’ or in the case of the workplace –they disengage.

Murray’s theories started off where the Hawthorne studies left off. The Hawthorne studies made huge progress in recognizing that people had different motivations and could not be treated like “appendages” of the machines they operated. Murray fine tuned that conclusion into establishing that each employee was different, with a unique set of needs.

Murray’s studies, are rarely given much notice. He is more famous for predicting Hitler’s suicide based on his psychological profiling than for his theories on the “system of needs”. Recognized or not, they formed the basis for the development of the competency-based models of management effectiveness and the infinitely more famous and oft-quoted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the topics for the next post of this series.

References for this post: Henry Murray, System of needs, Hawthorne Works: wikipedia. All images: Wikimedia Commons, A new vision, HBS, Baker Library, Historical Collections.

2 thoughts on “The Ascent of Employee Engagement: A (very brief) history of motivation in the workplace (Part 2)

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