The Ant Fable Annotated:                                  The Hawthorne Experiment & The Lease or Buy Decision


    This Fable has made quite an Odysseus journey. Apparently it is originally from Brazil. From there it made its way to India, where it replicated itself. The progeny eventually reached the U.S. and Europe. Either along the way, or upon arrival, one of the Fables came under the influence of coaching. That Fable matured, growing twice as large and much more powerful and cunning than its brethern.

    Because of the unusual and striking coincidence of a version with a coaching elephant (who even looks like our mascot!) Bridges was asked to comment on it. Apparently it was intended for a series of presentations by a client in Mumbai, India of our web site designer. To our surprise there were dual tracks (German and English). We did in fact make a number of suggestions about the text, such as to incorporate the Hawthorne experiment. Although the meeting scheduled with Bridges about it never took place, we noted that several of our suggestions, including the Hawthorne one, had been followed. 

    At least a dozen of the Ant Fables, including the dual track coaching version, have come to find a wonderful home in San Francisco at the company Slideshare.1 In the second half of The Ant Fable with Happy End, the Elephant asks the Lion to consider the Hawthorne experiment and the leasing of the factory equipment to the workforce. Unfortunately these are not explained in the power point slides. (Presumably that was to give the speaker more scope in his lecture.) Therefor the former is considered here and the later in the subpage "The Lease or Buy Decision."


I. The Hawthorne Experiment

    The fate of the industrious ant after modern day management is introduced to increase her production should make you smile, albeit ruefully. On a more serious note, reflect on the Hawthorne Experiment. Beginning in 1924 a Harvard Business School team spent several years studying the Hawthorne works of Western Electric. The purpose was to increase the production of the factory workers by isolating the variables that would improve their performance. Hawthorne is further discussed below.

    For a modern extension of some of the Hawthorne findings, click on Daniel H. Pink´s YouTube (11 minutes) presentation, RSA Animate-Drive, about motivating the workforce.2 The presentation emphasizes AMP -  Autonomy, Mastery (the satisfaction of improving at something) and Purpose (work that has meaning, makes a difference). AMP represents the driving forces for "brain work" as opposed to simple manual labor.

    Daniel Pink also states that AMP only becomes relevant after one´s earnings are satisfactory. Being underpaid kills motivation, regardless of other incentives. What is interesting is the hypothesis that a large reward is counter-productive. Examples are given with M.I.T. students and with workers in rural India.  A potential reward of one month´s salary in India yielded better results than a reward of two months´ salary. Apparently this counter-intuitive result consistently appears in both Western and Asian cultures. 

    The above experiment and other evidence notwithstanding, this conclusion should be viewed with caution. First, status is often driven by that easy to understand measure -- money, e.g. the athlete´s (or MBA´s) signing bonus. Second, high status, low paying jobs, such as in the diplomatic corps, do not elicit nearly the same interest from top MBAs (e.g. Harvard's Baker Scholars) as the high status, high salary ones of for instance, the elite consulting firms. Third, in many of the professions there is a belief that the graduates who start with the highest salaries and biggest bonuses are on a fast track, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Start high and accelerate!

    People who start medium (especially women) not only do not catch up, but the earnings gap between the mediums and the high-end starters gets wider decade by decade. Empricial studies indicate there is at least some truth to this "starting-gap" credo. Naturally it depends on the university one graduates from, the profession and the region/culture where one works. To the extent that this belief influences job choice and performance, it contradicts the "higher reward/less incentive" hypothesis.  

    To return to the Hawthorne experiment: a test group of five immigrant Irish women was selected and isolated in a separate room. There they assembled telephone relays, which was their normal job in the plant. The researchers became totally frustrated with the experiment. They made more and more dramatic changes in the variables, either adding or subtracting from them: better lighting, terrible lighting, no lighting: better chairs, worse chairs, no chairs; and so forth. The result was always the same. Production continued to climb inexorably, to 49 relays an hour, then to an unprecedented 68.  (A "wild dash" production speed of one relay per minute had been considered impossible to maintain for more than a short burst of maximum effort.)

    Unable to explain the counter-intuitive results with statistical methods, the researchers finally resorted to desperate measures. They actually asked the women why they were working so much better! The case is explained in detail by Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars in their fascinating book Building Cross-Cultural Competence, How to Create Wealth from Conflicting Values, Wiley, 2000, pp. 216 - 222.  The answer to the question above (p. 219) was:


        "We have no bosses!"  They told the researchers, "We’re treated like human
         beings."  "You pay attention to what we tell you."   "We enjoy each other."


Hampden-Turner and Tompenaars then elaborate and explain in detail the group dynamics and motivational factors, which led to the women’s record setting performance.  They continue (p. 220 f.):


           "The Hawthorne experiment has a sad sequel. The resulting book Management and the Worker became a best seller . . . Western Electric demanded and received half the royalties on the grounds that it had hosted the experiment. . . As for the girls, who had told everyone the answers, they got nothing. The moral is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t stop it from drinking your share, and then fouling the water hole."

    Fortunately production methods and working conditions have improved enormously since the 1920s. The Japanese have achieved high efficiency in production by raising quality with continuous, small improvements, having a highly motivated and well educated labor force, and through the extensive use of industrial robots.  A company that has achieved exceptional production with another approach, self-directed work teams, is W. L. Gore & Associates, producers of Gore-Tex fabrics and one of the most innovative companies in the world. 

    However peace does not uniformly reign between management and labor, unionized or not, today either. In 2009 Opel workers in Germany protested with graphic signs, written in English.  These were widely reported in the press:


We don`t need sex. 


Our Management F..ks Us Every Day!


If a message like that goes viral on the Internet and social media, the company may not be facing a PR glitch. It may be facing major problems with sales and falling stock prices.   



1 The CEO of Slideshare, headquartered in San Francisco with offices in New Delhi, India, is Rashmi Sinha, who has a PhD in Psychology from Brown University. The company, which is advised by venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki of Garage Tech Ventures, is the world´s largest website for sharing presentations. It is one of the 250 most viewed websites in the world. It supports documents, pdfs, videos and webinars.


2 Daniel H. Pink´s most recent book is Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 2009. It is also available in a German translation, cf.


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