Episode Summary

Can an 80-year-old research experiment provide any valuable insight into today’s work environments?

Episode Notes

In 1939, Alfred Marrow, the managing director of the Harwood Manufacturing Corporation factory in Virginia, invited Kurt Lewin (a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the U.S.

to come to the textile factory to discuss significant problems with productivity and turnover of employees. The Harwood study is considered the first experiment of group decision-making and self-management in industry and the first example of applied organizational psychology. The Harwood Experiment was part of Lewin’s continuing exploration of participatory action research.

In this episode David and Drew discuss the main areas covered by this research:

  1. Group decision-making
  2. Self-management
  3. Leadership training
  4. Changing people’s thoughts about stereotypes
  5. Overcoming resistance to change

It turns out that yes, Lewin identified many areas of the work environment that could be improved and changed with the participation of management and members of the workforce communicating with each other about their needs and wants.This was novel stuff in 1939, but proved to be extremely insightful and organizations now utilize many of this experiment’s tenets 80 years later.

Discussion Points:

  • Similarities in this study compared to the Chicago Western Electric “Hawthorne experiments”
  • Organizational science – Lewin’s approach
  • How Lewin came to be invited to the Virginia factory and the problems they needed to solve
  • Autocratic vs. democratic – studies of school children’s performance
  • The setup of the experiment – 30 minute discussions several times a week with four cohorts
  • The criticisms and nitpicks around the study participants
  • Group decision making
  • Self-management and field theory
  • Harwood leaders were appointed for tech knowledge, not people skills
  • The experiment held “clinics” where leaders could bring up their issues to discuss
  • Changing stereotypes – the factory refused to hire women over 30 – but experimented by hiring a group for this study
  • Presenting data does not work to change beliefs, but stories and discussions do
  • Resistance to change – changing workers’ tasks without consulting them on the changes created bitterness and lack of confidence
  • The illusion of choice lowers resistance
  • The four cohorts:
  • Control group – received changes as they normally would – just ‘being told’
  • Group received more detail about the changes, members asked to represeet the group with management
  • Group c and d participated in voting for the changes, their productivity was the only one that increased– 15%
  • This was an atypical factory/workforce to begin with, that already had a somewhat participatory approach
  • Takeaways:
  • Involvement in the discussion of change vs. no involvement
  • Self-management – setting own goals
  • Leadership needs more than technical competence
  • Stereotypes – give people space to express views, they may join the group majority in voting the other way
  • Resistance to change – if people can contribute and participate, confidence is increased
  • Focus on group modifications, not individuals
  • More collaborative, less autocratic
  • Doing this kind of research is not that difficult, you don’t need university-trained researchers, just people with a good mind for research ideas/methods


“The experiments themselves were a series of applied research studies done in a single manufacturing facility in the U.S., starting in 1939.” – David

“Lewin’s principal for these studies was…’no research without action, and no action without research,’ and that’s where the idea of action research came from…each study is going to lead to a change in the plant.” – Drew

“It became clear that the same job was done very differently by different people.” – David

“This is just a lesson we need to learn over and over and over again in our organizations, which is that you don’t get very far by telling your workers what to do without listening to them.” – Drew

“With 80 years of hindsight it’s really hard to untangle the different explanations for what was actually going on here.” – Drew

“Their theory was that when you include workers in the design of new methods…it increases their confidence…it works by making them feel like they’re experts…they feel more confident in the change.” – Drew