Elton Mayo (1880-1949) was born in Australia and studied and taught psychology at universities there before moving to the United States where he worked as Professor of Industrial research at Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration from 1926 to 1947. In 1926 he was introduced to the work of the sociologist Vifredo Pareto and his understanding of Pareto's work influenced his work in the field of Industrial Psychology.
Between 1927 and 1932, a group of industrial engineers from Harvard conducted a series of experiments at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Chicago. The experimenters had been trying to assess the potential effects of variations in physical factors, such as the degree of illumination, on worker productivity. To their surprise, they found that productivity rose in all conditions and was even maintained when the original conditions were restored. Mayo was consulted and produced his own interpretation of the results. He concluded that the increased productivity was due to psychological, not physical, factors. He argued that the workers were responding positively because they felt that they had been involved in the research and observed and questioned closely and this indicated a concern and interest in them on the part of the management, so that they were responding to this perceived concern. The term 'The Hawthorne Effect' was applied to this increased productivity as a result of the workers feeling more cared about by management and, as a result, responding positively.
The Hawthorne studies became among the best-known experiments in Industrial Psychology and are today very much associated with Mayo, although he did not carry out most of them himself. His interpretations of the findings were in keeping with his pre-existing theories and beliefs. Mayo thought that large-scale industrialisation had caused workers to become alienated from society, having lost the social groupings and ties that had sustained people in pre-industrialised societies. He felt that organisations could help to fill this void by creating communities of workers who found meaning in their work and that informal group relations were a significant factor in industrial efficiency. Mayo suggested that consultation between management and workers through interviews could give workers a greater sense of belonging to a team. He later became an advocate of counselling in the workplace. It is this emphasis on the centrality of 'human relations' at work and in society as a whole that gave the movement its name.
More recently, the Hawthorne Effect has been re-interpreted as due to factors other than the warm feelings of the workers (see Leahey, 1987) and Mayo has been criticised as being deficient in his scientific methodology and for the way in which he uses the evidence of the studies to support his own social philosophy rather than examining other possible explanations for it (Rose, 1975). However, his ideas have been very influential in twentieth century organisational psychology.