In the early 1900s, Frederic Taylor, an industrial engineer and pioneer of the Scientific Management movement, devised a new way of thinking about work. Rather than making workers work harder, he proposed, managers should help them work more efficiently. (This philosophy might ring a bell: “Work smarter, not harder!”). He broke down certain work procedures, such as laying bricks, into tiny chunks, then determined all the variables that might make each chunk of the brick-laying procedure as efficient as possible: what equipment workers should use, what motions they should perform, the time needed to perform them, and whether workers might need a break beforehand1. What made his work so revolutionary was that he was the first person to apply a scientific approach of dissection and experimentation to the workplace.
Inspired by Taylor’s pioneering work, American psychologist Elton Mayo and his colleagues from Harvard Business School took experimenting with the workplace a step further. Between 1924 to 1933, they conducted a series of experiments on workers at Hawthorne Works, an electric company in Cicero, Illinois, to determine the effect of working conditions on productivity2. These experiments were called “the Hawthorne studies”. In their first experiment, they investigated whether manipulating the factory’s lighting affected workers’ productivity. To their surprise, productivity increased in both the low-light and high-light conditions during the study, but productivity waned for both conditions once the study ended. They concluded that it wasn’t lighting that influenced workers’ productivity; rather, the researchers’ attention on them boosted their motivation to work harder.
You might think that it’s a no-brainer that lighting—something unrelated to how hard workers perform—wouldn’t affect productivity. If so, you might find their next study more compelling: rather than varying lighting, they varied workers’ wages. Specifically, they investigated whether adjusting workers’ pay based on their performance affected their productivity. In this study, they observed workers who assembled telephone switching equipment and segregated these groups to see if any interesting group dynamics emerged. These workers had a base pay, but they were also paid extra based on output: the more telephone switching equipment assembled, the higher their pay.
Surprisingly, this wage incentive did not boost workers’ productivity. The workers feared that if they boosted their output substantially, the employer might eventually lower the base rate to compensate for the extra pay, voiding their efforts. More surprisingly, Mayo and colleagues saw that each group of workers had its own productivity standard. Individuals who strayed below or beyond their group’s standard were chastised or pressured to conform. This study provided two key insights: first, that workers are not as “rational” as economists assumed; and second, that workers are more responsive to group pressures than their manager’s incentives.
Ultimately, these studies emphasized the enormous value of studying behavior in the workplace. They paved the way for more rigorous scientific inquiry into not only what boosted workers’ productivity but, eventually, how their jobs can make them feel fulfilled.