Applying the Hawthorne studies to project management

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Motivation is a key element of excellent project management. A study done at the Hawthorne factory showed exactly that and the importance of including employees and managers in a group environment to increase productivity, hence motivation. The Hawthorne studies were a series of experiments conducted on workers at the Hawthorne Western Electric plant, where the goal of the studies was to examine the effect light levels had on worker's productivity. [1] The Hawthorne experiments were executed in the 1920s and early 1930s. Understanding the effect of the experiment creates an effective management style [2]. The result of the experiment was an increase in the worker's productivity, both when the light level increased but also when the light was diminished. The conclusion of the experiment showed that teamwork and engagement was the sole driver of productivity - not lighting levels. The participants’ behavior differed from how they usually work. The environment invited them to get to know one another and therefore they started working together. The workers socialized and enjoyed a different working environment. [3].

The big question is; how can managers use this to motivate their employees? Maximization of employee productivity and motivation is key for a well-executed project and its success [3]. Another output of the study was that people chosen for the experiment felt pride in being “the chosen one” and therefore performed as such. Project managers can utilize this technique by including people in the process and allow workers to give feedback, while simultaneously rewarding people with tasks to keep them motivated. [1].

This article will examine why the workers' performance increased, and how this ties to theories of natural human behavior, framing themselves as higher beings, compared to their peers. Furthermore, the article will explore how project managers utilize this to their advantage, and how workers' individuality plays a part in creating value and motivation. [1] [2].

Big Idea of the study

Elton Mayo of Harvard University conducted the experiment to explore the work environment's effect on productivity [4]. Mayo’s experiment was one of the stepping stones for Motivational Theory which emerged in the 1900s to aid managers. The earliest ideas of motivation were the motivation to survive, hence finding food, shelter, and clothing. The definition of motivation has changed since and is tied to enthusiasm rather than surviving. [4] The study's setting was not in relation to project management as the employees were asked to assemble small parts and not work together as a team. Although, this project teamwork was exactly what happened which will be explained through the chapter. The studies were divided into five stages:

1. The Relay Assembly Test Room Study (New incentive system and new supervision)

2. The Second Relay Assembly Group Study (New incentive system only)

3. The Mica Splitting Test Room study (New supervision only)

4. The Interviewing Program

5. The Bank-Wiring Observation Room Study [5].

Stage one to three studied differences in physical conditions such as rest pauses, hours of work, temperature, and humidity. These stages lasted for 12 months where the conclusion was that social factors were far more important than physical and economic factors of motivation [5]. These first experiments were done on women who were put in a separate room. In this room, they were told to assemble the products. The strong friendship, which the room helped build, made the women feel more at ease talking to each other and their productivity increased. [5] Mayo came to the conclusion that the friendship of the women was an indicator of the significance of mental attitudes, proper supervision, and informal social relationships being a key factor in motivation. [5]

Therefore, the conclusion of the study was that the workers performed better in the setting of the study. The factors that increased productivity were both: "the interaction" and "the social setting of the study room". The workers felt safer and happier and they wanted to contribute as well as they could to help the group and therefore their productivity increased. [5]

Social Exchange Theory

A lot of new studies are based upon the Hawthorne studies and Jeff Muldoon from School of Business at Emporia State University and Yaron J. Zoller from J. Garland Schilcutt School of Business and Entrepreneurship explains that Social Exchange Theory “describes the behavioral interactions between two or more individuals and how these behavioral interactions reinforce the other’s behavior”. This behavior is exactly what Mayo saw in the Hawthorne studies but the knowledge within this area wasn’t good enough at the time. Therefore, Yaron J. Zoller and Jeff Muldoon studied the correlation between Social Exchange Theory and the Hawthorne studies. [6].

Social Exchange Theory explains the behavior in people and not specific actions. Hence, a project manager’s employee finishes a target earlier than expected and shows it to the project manager – will the employee then want to be praised or is the employee just interested in moving on with new targets. If the project manager gives the employee praise for the quick delivery then this is described as the social exchange. Mayo describes takeaways from the Hawthorne study that “group interactions within and with management created social bonds” and that “social motivations could lead to higher degrees of performance within the group[6]. The interactions were the key elements of the great outcome in the Hawthorne studies. They felt like a whole group; both employees and the management [6]. This reflects a project team where employees and managers work together towards a common goal.

The origin of motivation

The project manager needs to understand the importance of motivation. Hence, going back in history to grasp how motivation affects employees improves the understanding. Motivation is said to be dependent on four factors; Situation, temperament, goal, and tool. Motivation or the lack of can be a reason for certain behavior. Some people are motivated to do a task faster than others and other people might enjoy the social construction at work so they enjoy being there so much that they get the job done to please the manager. Motivation can be traced all the way to ancient Greek and the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, René Descartes distinguished between two motivations; active and inactive. The body is an inactive motivation and will is an active motivation. Motivation comes from the Latin word for Stimulation, which is still the accurate use of motivation. In a Project Management set, the Project Manager will seek to stimulate the employee’s factors to ensure the best possible outcome [7].

Motivation is a complex theory and it is not something that can be seen - so if a worker is very productive the Project Manager will not know why and how it happened and it is not something the Project manager can transfer to another person. People will have different needs and will therefore not reach the same productivity [7].

Motivation can be classified into three groups; Physiological, social, psychological, and educational.

1. Physiological motivations:

This describes the need for basic needs such as food and water.

2. Social Motivation:

This describes the need to be accepted by other people as a member of their society. This can be relevant in collegial contexts such as being accepted at a new company by other colleagues.

3. Psychological motivations:

This describes the individualized motivation which is what makes a human achieve goals and it can decide which target e.g. an employee tries to reach.

4. Educational motivations:

The last factor describes that motivation depends on the person’s idea of how high of knowledge they would like, to be accepted into society. [7].

Application of the Hawthorne studies

A project manager should strive to motivate and encourage the team to perform. According to the standard PMBOK, project managers need three skills; Technical Project Management, Leadership, and Strategic and Business Management. One key element of these is motivation and performance to ensure a successful result. PMBOK, short for Project Management Body of Knowledge, is a standard within Project Management. PMBOK helps the project manager to navigate a complicated world. The PMBOK Guide also states that the far most important job in project management is dealing with people. “The leaders use their interpretation to communicate and motivate their teams toward the successful completion of their objectives” as stated in the PMBOK guide [8]. Another standard for project managers is the PRINCE2, which stands for "Projects in a Controlled Environment". The PRINCE2 standard states that the project manager is responsible for planning, delegating, monitoring, and control of all aspects of any project and the motivation of any people involved. It is very important that the people in the projects do not feel distanced from the project but rather feeling like their skills are needed in the project. The PRINCE2 standard states that if the project manager does a good job in achieving this, then the project will successfully be executed. Hence, the achievement of the different objectives will be done within the expected performance targets [9]. Both PMBOK and PRINCE2 create an understanding of motivation being a huge part of project management. Hence, the motivation of employees is one of the most important parts of project management. The projects will not have the best outcome without the employee's highest motivation.

Satisfy the employees needs to achieve productivity

A way to motivate by applying the Hawthorne studies is to encourage employees to work together and to communicate to let them know that they are important. This can be done by creating an environment where it is possible for the employees to talk and bond. Social interactions can be created by making the employees work together and make them feel safe by creating a set of guidelines so they know what they need to do and how. The social bond between the employees can also be created by social gatherings after work or trips to relevant stakeholders. Comparing this with the four motivational factors, then a project manager should ensure:

1. Physiological motivation:

The physical needs of the employees are satisfied. The organization plays a role in this step, as the organization needs to ensure water, food, coffee, and snacks throughout the day.

2. Social motivation:

The manager ensures that the employees have the opportunity to work together. This is achieved through creating an environment for the employees where it is allowed to interact. The project manager can also enhance this behavior by interacting with the employees and creating a role model for socializing.

3. Psychological motivation:

This motivational factor require the project manager to get to know their employees. What does the specific employee need to achieve their best performance?

4. Educational motivation:

This stage is a bit more complex, as the project manager needs to establish a certain level of knowledge for the employees to reach.

As stated above, people have different abilities and the project manager needs to strive to get to know the employees’ abilities. The project manager can ruin any good relation by setting a goal that is not reachable for a certain employee. This results in this employee feeling like the odd one out which decreases productivity. This is also indicated in the PMBOK standard where “the project manager should study people’s behavior’s and motivation[8]. This will result in getting to know the employees, hence understanding how to motivate them in future teamwork and projects. The next chapter guides the reader through creating a safe work environment to create better teamwork.

Create a safe environment for the employees

The project manager needs to ensure a work environment that fosters teamwork. A way for creating a safe environment is to establish nine steps:

1. Encourage Informal Social Events:

Informal social events create a bond between the employees and the manager. This can be a glass of wine and dinner at a restaurant and the bond they create here will carry on to the office.

2. Clarify Roles:

The roles of the team and their job description needs to be carefully handled. As this can create confusing roles and then it can be impossible for people to work together.

3. Specify Goals:

The goals need to be clear for the organization but also for the individual teams. If the individual team goal is set, then the team knows what they need to work towards.

4. Reward Excellent Teamwork:

The manager needs to show appreciation for excellent work. This will foster more excellent work - so the employees can feel like the best version of themselves.

5. Don’t Micro-manage:

Trust is a keyword for managers! Do not treat the employees as children that need help all the time. The employees will ask if they need help.

6. Establish Effective Communications:

Communication is important in teamwork and people management. The employees do not have to be friends out of the office but giving the employees a guideline for communication in the office will create professionalism amongst the employees.

7. Celebrate Individuality:

Not every employee is the same. And some like to work in a closed environment and then share thoughts and ideas on their own terms which needs to be accepted by the manager.

8. Use Project Management Tools:

Using a common tool for project management is key as the employees can share and communicate over the same platform.

9. Get Feedback From Everyone [10] :

This part is also about individualization. Some employees might find it positive to discuss outcomes and teamwork in an open environment but others like to be anonymous or have a one-to-one with the manager.

Everyone is different - and the manager needs to understand these steps to ensure the best work environment for the employees.


Even though the idea of involving people in the process and hence motivating them to become productive is a good tool, individualization needs to be considered by the project manager. As stated above, the Project manager needs to study the employees and get to know them. It does not work to use the same motivational technique on all employees [11].

Arianna Dal Forno and Ugo Merlone from the Department of Statistics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Torino states that “different employees want different rewards from their jobs, that many employees sincerely want to contribute, and that employees, by and large, have the capacity to exercise a great deal of self-direction and self-control at work[11].

Alex Carey from the University of New South Wales criticized the Hawthorne studies by only taking the social reward of being involved into account. Other factors play a role in motivating people. Carey recommended including financial rewards as a motivational factor. He criticized the Hawthorne studies to become evidence of later studies with so little evidence of social motivational factors being the biggest motivation. Carey and other critics point out the amount of bias involved in the experiment which conflicts with a possible different outcome without the bias [5].

Carey also points out that the conclusion of the first three stages was tempered as they limited the attention to economic and physical motivational factors [5]. Therefore, the social factors were the primary reason for motivation in the Hawthorne studies due to biased tempering. Donald Chipman who was the supervisor of Western Electric stated:” They say figures (Red. the results) don’t lie, but we have shown that we can take a set of figures and prove anything we want to.” [12].

The remaining stages of the study were then based on the first study with the women. This resulted in the biased outline of the other stages as they now wanted to conclude on the social impact on motivation. Stage 4 culminated into interviewing the workers’ attitude and stage 5 was exploring the informal group setting they were put in. Stage 4 and 5 were therefore a result of the previous stages and the physical and economic factors were not taken into account. [1].

Annotated bibliography

1. Management by Motivation, Ananaba, T. O. J, in Engineering Management International:

Provides an understanding of applying motivation in management and the correlation with motivation and the Hawthorne studies. The article also describes human behavior and how this played a part in the history of motivation. Furthermore, it gives an understanding of the development of later studies such as the study by Frederick Herzberg. Frederick Herzberg studied the factors that led to job satisfaction. At last, the article explores Douglas Murray McGregor’s Theory X and Y. The wiki article won’t explore Theory X and Y and the study by F. Herzberg. This wiki article does explore the history of motivation and how it developed. Furthermore, this wiki article also provides the reader with an application of how to create an environment that enforces social exchange.

2. The Hawthorn Studies: A radical criticism, Carey, A.: Carey provides a description of why the Hawthorne studies' results were tampered with and how it could have a different outcome. Carey claims that the first experiment was the base of the following experiments, hence the rest of the study was biased. The wiki article provides the reader with an understanding of why the result of the Hawthorne studies was true and why it’s so important today. The reader of the wiki article also gains knowledge of how to overcome the key points from A. Carey’s article in regards to individualizing motivational factors.

3. Illuminating the principles of social exchange theory with Hawthorne studies, Zoller, Y., Muldoon, J.: The article describes Homans’ Social Exchange Theory (SET) and why the result of the Hawthorne studies is correct. Furthermore, prove are provided so the reader understands the social exchange in the Hawthorne studies were the key motivator for productivity. The wiki article holds further explanation of what other key factors are needed to create maximum productivity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 J. Gitman, Lawrence & McDaniel, Carl & Shah, Amit & Reece, Monique & Koffel, Linda & Talsma, Bethann & C. Hyatt, James (2018). The Hawthorne Effect - Introduction to business . Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 CanadaTeam, Quickbooks (2021). Using the Hawthorne Effect to Better Manage Your Employees . Retrieved 10 February 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kenton, W. (2020) The Hawthorne effect. Retrieved 4 February 2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ananaba, T. O. J.(1981) [Management by Motivation. Engineering Management International, 11 February, pp. 63-71]. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Carey, A. (1967) The Hawthorne Studies: A Radical Criticism. Retrieved 12 February 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Zoller, Y. & Muldoon, J. (2019) [Illuminating the principles of social exchange theory with Hawthorne studies. Journal of Management History, Vol. 25, pp. 1751-1348]. Retrieved 4 February 2021.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Pakdel, B. (2013) [The Historical Context of Motivation and Analysis Theories Individual Motivation. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 3, 18 October, pp. 240-247]. Retrieved 9 February 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 PMBOK (2017) [Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). 6. ed. Pennsylvania : Project Management Institute]. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  9. AXELOS (2017) [Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2. ProQuest Ebook Central: The Stationary Office Ltd.]. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  10. Pope, A. (2020) 10 Surefire Tips to Improve Teamwork In The Workplace. Retrieved 12 February 2021.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Dal Forno, A. & Merlone, U. (2020) [Incentives and individual motivation in supervised work groups. European Journal of Operational Research, December 1, pp. 878-885]. Retrieved 12 February 2021.
  12. J. Gitman, Lawrence & McDaniel, Carl & Shah, Amit & Reece, Monique & Koffel, Linda & Talsma, Bethann & C. Hyatt, James (2018). The Hawthorne Effect - Introduction to business . Retrieved 8 February 2021.
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