Does productivity increase when employees feel respected? An unintentional finding in the classic Hawthorne experiments points to yes. In the late 1920s/early 1930s, engineers at Western Electric tested their theory that better lighting would improve productivity of factory workers. To do so, they walled off part of the factory floor and kept working conditions the same there, except for stronger illumination.
Or so they thought. In his 1964 business classic “Managerial Breakthrough,” J.M. Juran describes the differences in the regular factory floor and the experimental space: “In the big room, the employees were forbidden to talk to each other — conversation was regarded as a drag on productivity; in the ‘laboratory’ they could talk to their heart’s content, and did. In the big room, they were subjected to a long catalogue of petty disciplines; not so in the ‘laboratory.’ In the big room, they were nobody. . . but in the ‘laboratory’ these nameless operators suddenly acquired status; engineers and managers addressed them by name, asked them how Jimmy’s cold was getting on, explained the project, and otherwise treated them as members of the team. The engineers never dreamed that these ‘little’ things might have more effect on productivity than something as important (to an engineer) as lighting.”
In fact, productivity in the ‘laboratory’ far outstripped that of the control group on the regular factory floor. When the lighting was reduced to its previous level, those productivity numbers remained impressively high.
The behavioral scientists involved noted that a major difference between the control subjects and the factory workers in the experimental space was a sense of respect. The sorts of liberties and trust that engineers took for granted represented a major step up for the work experience of those working on the shop floor.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that when you treat employees like adults, they act like adults. That sense of respect creates engaged and productive employees.