Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 227
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Happy Worker

Research corrects a mistake and rediscovers a long-lost principle.

During the 1930's a series of management studies were conducted at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. Researchers wanted to learn the effect of working conditions on worker productivity, and the executives of the company saw an opportunity to boost productivity without increasing costs.

The most famous finding from these studies was revealed in the lighting experiment. In this experiment, researchers carefully measured the workers' output and then turned up the lights, reasoning that if they could better see their work, they would be more productive, and productivity went up. Next, they took another group of workers and turned down the lights, but their productivity went up too. It seemed that no matter what they did with the lights, productivity went up. Then they figured out that it was the careful attention the researchers showed the workers in watching them work that caused the productivity increases, not the lights. You'd work harder too if someone was closely watching you and counting your output.

The executives learned nothing from this experiment, but the researchers learned to keep their observations discrete, so they wouldn't influence their findings. They even named this effect: the Hawthorne effect, and if you look it up in your dictionary, you'll find it.

Meanwhile, the studies went on.

Next, the researchers believed they had discovered a principle: happy workers are productive workers. It doesn't seem so hard to accept, but in view of the earlier findings, critics immediately began finding fault with it. They also tried to duplicate this finding in other settings. Results have been inconclusive, and research continues to this day. Are happy workers more productive? Should we invest money to buy employee happiness in hopes of a measurable return on our investment?

Books have been written and hundreds of studies have explored these questions, but all of this work has been built on a single, simple mistake that was made with the original Hawthorne studies and has been repeated ever since. Thomas Wright from the University of Nevada pointed it out in a paper he presented at a recent Academy of Management meeting. Worker happiness has always been measured as job satisfaction. If you're happy, you'll like your job. Wright pointed out that job satisfaction is arrived at after an evaluation of job activities. A happy person could poorly evaluate a job with difficult working conditions and yet still be a happy person. An unhappy person could favorably evaluate a job with good working conditions yet still be an unhappy person. The connection to productivity was being lost. Wright suspected that this simple mistake had confounded all these earlier studies, so he decided to find out.

Wright tested workers in a social service agency. Employees completed survey measures of both job satisfaction and happiness. After one year he factored in supervisory performance ratings and he found that the happiness survey taken a year earlier had predicted performance. The job satisfaction survey had not. Happy workers were the best performers. Satisfied workers were not.

He waited another year and found the predictive power of his happiness survey actually increased, while the job-satisfaction survey predicted nothing at all. Professor Wright believes his findings fit in with recent research investigating psychological well-being and work performance which have found similar connections in the insurance industry.

Psychological well-being, happiness, is a quality we can look for in our hiring of new employees and in our selection of employees for special responsibilities. It's likely we'll be pleased with the performance of people we select with this quality. It's also possible to promote psychological well-being by investing in benefits that will please employees, and by exercising restraint and compassion when working with employees experiencing problems. Wright's research suggests that this may be money and effort well spent.

Reference: Wright, Thomas, and Russell Cropanzano (1997) Well-Being, Satisfaction, and Job Performance: Another Look at the Happy/Productive Worker Thesis. Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings from the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, 364-368.

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