The Human Factor: What the Hawthorne Studies Teach Us About Building Successful Teams

Shah Mohammed
8 min readMay 19, 2024

The Hawthorne Studies, a series of experiments conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in the 1920s and 1930s, have left a lasting impact on our understanding of human behaviour in the workplace. Although initially designed to examine the effects of physical conditions on worker productivity, the studies revealed something far more profound: the importance of human factors in building successful teams. The Hawthorne Studies offer valuable insights into how social dynamics, employee engagement, and effective communication contribute to creating a productive and cohesive work environment.

The Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne Studies were conducted between 1924 and 1932 at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago. The original purpose of the studies was to investigate the impact of physical conditions, such as lighting and work hours, on worker productivity. Researchers hoped to find ways to optimize the work environment and increase efficiency.

However, as the studies progressed, the researchers began to notice unexpected patterns in the data. Regardless of the changes made to the physical conditions, worker productivity seemed to improve. This led the researchers to suspect that there were other factors at play, beyond just the physical environment.

As they delved deeper into the data and conducted interviews with the workers, the researchers discovered that the act of being observed and the increased attention from supervisors had a significant impact on worker behavior. This phenomenon came to be known as the “Hawthorne Effect,” which suggests that people tend to change their behaviour when they know they are being watched or studied.

Furthermore, the researchers found that social dynamics within the workplace played a crucial role in shaping worker attitudes and performance. The informal relationships and norms that developed among workers had a powerful influence on their behaviour and productivity.

These unexpected findings shifted the focus of the Hawthorne Studies from physical conditions to the social and psychological factors that impact worker behaviour. The studies revealed that the human element, including social interactions, employee morale, and a sense of belonging, was just as important, if not more so, than the physical environment in determining worker productivity and satisfaction.

The insights gained from the Hawthorne Studies challenged prevailing notions about the role of workers in organizations and paved the way for a new understanding of the importance of human factors in the workplace. The studies highlighted the need for managers to consider the social and emotional needs of their employees, in addition to their physical working conditions, in order to build successful and productive teams.

Insight 1: The Power of Attention and Observation

One of the most significant findings from the Hawthorne Studies is the Hawthorne Effect, which demonstrates the power of attention and observation in shaping team performance. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that individuals tend to change their behaviour when they are aware of being observed or when they receive increased attention from their supervisors.

In the context of team performance, the Hawthorne Effect highlights the importance of showing genuine interest and attention to team members. When managers take the time to engage with their team, acknowledge their efforts, and demonstrate a sincere concern for their well-being, it can have a profound impact on motivation and productivity.

By regularly checking in with team members, providing constructive feedback, and recognizing their achievements, managers can foster a sense of value and appreciation among their team. This, in turn, can lead to increased job satisfaction, higher morale, and a greater willingness to go the extra mile in their work.

Moreover, when managers take an active interest in their team’s work and provide support and resources as needed, it can help to build trust and create a more positive work environment. Team members who feel that their manager is invested in their success are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work.

To demonstrate genuine interest in their team’s work and well-being, managers can:

  1. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with team members to discuss their progress, challenges, and goals
  2. Provide timely and specific feedback, both positive and constructive, to help team members grow and develop
  3. Celebrate team successes and milestones, and acknowledge individual contributions
  4. Show empathy and concern for team members’ personal well-being, and offer support and flexibility when needed
  5. Invest in team members’ professional development by providing training, mentoring, and growth opportunities

By leveraging the power of attention and observation, managers can create a work environment that promotes motivation, engagement, and high performance.

Insight 2: The Importance of Social Dynamics

The Hawthorne Studies also revealed the critical role that social dynamics play in shaping team performance. The researchers found that the social relationships and group norms that developed among workers had a significant impact on their behaviour and productivity.

In any team, the quality of social interactions and the sense of belonging that team members feel can greatly influence their ability to work together effectively. When team members have positive relationships with one another, characterized by trust, respect, and open communication, they are more likely to collaborate, share knowledge, and support each other’s efforts.

On the other hand, when social dynamics are negative, characterized by conflict, competition, or mistrust, it can lead to a breakdown in teamwork and a decrease in overall performance. Team members who feel isolated, unsupported, or at odds with their colleagues are less likely to be engaged and committed to their work.

To foster positive social dynamics within their teams, managers can:

  1. Encourage open and honest communication among team members and model active listening and respectful dialogue
  2. Provide opportunities for team members to interact and build relationships outside work tasks, such as through team-building activities or social events.
  3. Promote a culture of collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and recognize and reward teamwork and mutual support.
  4. Address conflicts and negative behaviours promptly and constructively, and work with team members to find solutions and rebuild trust.
  5. Foster a sense of inclusion and belonging by valuing diversity, promoting equity, and ensuring that all team members feel heard and respected.

By creating a positive social environment and nurturing strong interpersonal relationships among team members, managers can tap into the power of social dynamics to drive better teamwork, collaboration, and overall performance. When team members feel connected, supported, and valued by their colleagues, they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and committed to achieving shared goals.

Insight 3: The Role of Employee Engagement

The Hawthorne Studies also highlighted the importance of employee engagement in building successful teams. The researchers found that when workers were involved in decision-making processes and given a sense of ownership over their work, they were more motivated and satisfied with their jobs.

This insight suggests that managers who want to build high-performing teams should prioritize employee engagement by actively involving team members in decision-making and giving them a degree of autonomy in their work. When team members feel that their opinions and ideas are valued, and that they have a stake in the success of the team, they are more likely to be invested in their work and committed to achieving shared goals.

Moreover, when team members are given the opportunity to take ownership of their work and make decisions about how to approach tasks and solve problems, they are more likely to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in their achievements. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their work.

To promote employee engagement, managers can:

  1. Regularly seek input and feedback from team members on decisions that affect their work and take their ideas and concerns into account
  2. Provide opportunities for team members to take on new challenges and responsibilities and support their growth and development.
  3. Give team members the autonomy to make decisions about how to approach their work while providing guidance and support as needed.
  4. Hold regular feedback sessions to discuss progress, challenges, and opportunities for improvement and encourage open and honest dialogue.
  5. Recognize and celebrate team members’ contributions and achievements, and show appreciation for their efforts and dedication.

By promoting employee engagement and giving team members a sense of ownership and autonomy in their work, managers can tap into the intrinsic motivation and creativity of their team members, leading to higher levels of performance, satisfaction, and retention.

Insight 4: The Importance of Psychological Safety

The Hawthorne Studies also shed light on the importance of psychological safety in building successful teams. Although the term “psychological safety” was not coined until much later, the findings from the studies suggest that when team members feel safe to express their ideas, opinions, and concerns without fear of negative consequences, they are more likely to be engaged, creative, and productive.

Psychological safety refers to the belief that one can speak up, take risks, and make mistakes without fear of punishment, embarrassment, or retribution. In a team with high psychological safety, members feel comfortable being vulnerable, asking for help, and admitting when they don’t know something. They trust that their colleagues and managers will support them and have their best interests in mind.

The Hawthorne Studies showed that when workers felt that their opinions and experiences were valued, and that they could express themselves openly and honestly, they were more motivated and satisfied with their work. In contrast, when workers felt that they had to hide their true thoughts and feelings, or that they would be punished for speaking up, they were less engaged and productive.

To promote psychological safety in their teams, managers can:

  1. Model vulnerability and openness and encourage team members to do the same.
  2. Create a culture of experimentation and learning, where mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth rather than failures.
  3. Actively seek out and listen to team members’ ideas and concerns and show appreciation for their contributions.
  4. Provide support and resources to help team members take risks and try new things.
  5. Address conflicts and negative behaviours in a constructive and non-judgmental way, focusing on solutions rather than blame.

By fostering a culture of psychological safety, managers can create an environment where team members feel empowered to bring their full selves to work, take risks, and collaborate openly and honestly. This can lead to higher levels of engagement, creativity, and performance, as well as stronger relationships and a more positive team culture.

Conclusion: Though conducted nearly a century ago, the Hawthorne Studies continue to provide valuable insights into the human factors that contribute to building successful teams. By highlighting the power of attention and observation, the importance of social dynamics, the role of employee engagement, and the significance of psychological safety, the studies offer a roadmap for managers looking to create high-performing, collaborative, and resilient teams.

As the workplace continues to evolve, the lessons from the Hawthorne Studies remain as relevant as ever. By prioritizing the human element and creating a culture of trust, openness, and mutual support, managers can unlock the full potential of their teams and drive lasting success for their organizations. The key is to remember that, at the end of the day, it is the people who make the difference — and by investing in their well-being, growth, and sense of belonging, we can build teams that are truly greater than the sum of their parts.