In a business environment, managers are often encouraged to manage by walking around or going to Gemba. While that sounds like good advice, are there some negatives to doing that? If you understand the Hawthorne effect, you might be aware of some potential downsides for standing around and watching people work.

Overview: What is the Hawthorne effect? 

The Hawthorne effect refers to the tendency of people to alter their behaviors in response to being aware they are being observed. This phenomenon implies that when people become aware they are being watched by someone else, they may act differently, either better or worse.

The term Hawthorne effect was coined in 1958 by researcher Henry A. Landsberger when he was conducting an analysis of earlier experiments conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Plant in the Chicago area. 

There were four separate experiments referred to as the Hawthorne Studies:

  • Illumination Experiments (1924-1927)
  • Relay Assembly Test Room Experiments (1927-1932)
  • Experiments in Interviewing Workers (1928- 1930)
  • Bank Wiring Room Experiments (1931-1932)

The first and most influential of these studies is known as the Illumination Experiment, conducted between 1924 and 1927. This first study began when engineers at the plant decided to study the effects of varying levels of lighting on worker productivity. 

The engineers hypothesized that increased lighting would lead to increased productivity. But the results showed that varying the level of light in either direction (brighter or dimmer) led to increased productivity from the experimental group. However, these gains in productivity disappeared when the attention faded.

This baffled the engineers, so in 1927, they asked Harvard professor Elton Mayo and a team of researchers to help explain what they observed. They concluded that people’s awareness of being observed had apparently led them to increase their output. It seemed that increased attention from supervisors could improve job performance.

From 1927 to 1932, Mayo and his colleagues conducted additional experiments on job redesign, length of workday and workweek, length of break times, and incentive plans. The results of the studies indicated changes in performance were tied to social, psychological and attitudinal aspects of people’s behavior. 

Mayo claimed that the people who participated in the studies had developed a sense of group pride because they had been selected to participate in the studies. The pride that came from this special attention motivated the workers to increase their productivity. The results also suggested that employees will perform better when they feel singled out for special attention or feel that management is concerned about their welfare. The studies also provided evidence that informal work groups (the social relationships of employees) and the resulting group pressure have positive effects on group productivity. The conclusion was that in addition to personal economic needs, social needs play an important role in influencing work-related attitudes and behaviors.

1 benefit and 2 downsides of the Hawthorne effect 

While the Hawthorne effect seems to provide organizational leadership with a roadmap for improved performance, there are also some caveats which must be considered. 

1. Benefit: Improved productivity

If you provide for the social needs of your employees, it will improve their work behaviors and productivity if it is done with sincerity. This often does not require significant financial incentives or investments.

2. Drawback: Improvements will regress

Unless there is true change, the improvements you get with the Hawthorne effect will fade and might even become worse because people may feel betrayed and frustrated.

3. Drawback: Beware of consultants

Your consultant comes in – makes recommendations – you implement, and things get better. But unless you make fundamental changes in the process, people will revert to their old ways and the process will slip back to what it was or worse. That is the Hawthorne effect in action.

Why is the Hawthorne effect important to understand? 

Any organization which attempts to make changes may experience the Hawthorne effect.

Some change you observe may not be real

If you involve your employees in the change process, their excitement to do things better will usually result in an improvement. But be aware that improvement may not be real if you don’t assure that their ongoing social needs continue to be met.

Observing and meeting social needs are not enough

The pride that comes from special attention motivates workers to increase their productivity. Supervisors who allow employees to have some control over their workplace environment appeared to further increase the workers’ motivation. The Hawthorne effect suggests that employees will perform better when they feel singled out for special attention or feel that management is concerned about their welfare. If fundamental process change does not occur this effect will diminish and extinguish over time. 

You need to be genuine

Any satisfaction of social needs and the special attention you pay must be genuine and reinforced. People will know if you are just pretending and are just playing with them. This will result in resentment and will cause the Hawthorne effect to disappear so things will revert and probably even get worse because people will feel they have been disrespected.

An industry example of the Hawthorne effect

A company deploying Six Sigma wanted to observe how their salespeople conducted themselves in the field. Since sales had been stagnating, management wanted the company Master Black Belt (MBB) to go out and observe a select group of salespeople.

After two weeks of observation, the MBB reported back that sales had increased by 12% for the experimental group. Of course, the MBB took credit because of all the valuable recommendations he presented to the group while he was observing.

One week later, sales had returned to their previous level. The Vice President of Sales soon realized that the increase in sales was more a function of the Hawthorne effect than any fundamental change in the sales process. 

3 best practices when thinking about the Hawthorne effect

It should not be your intent to evoke the Hawthorne effect but to guard against its existence as the root cause of your observed improvement in the process. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Secrecy 

If you are ethically comfortable, concealing information about your experiment and using covert data collection and observation can help mitigate the Hawthorne effect. Observing the subjects without informing them, or conducting experiments covertly, often yield more reliable outcomes. 

2. Use control groups 

By observing and treating a control group using the current process the same as your experimental group, might allow you to more clearly identify the effect since both groups should be affected by the Hawthorne effect.

3. Provide feedback

By providing ongoing performance feedback, you will continue to reinforce the improvements and changes and provide the motivation necessary to continue and even improve on the process changes.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the Hawthorne effect

What is the Hawthorne effect?

Simply stated, the Hawthorne effect is a change in the behavior of a person resulting from their awareness of being observed by someone else. 

What were the five key studies done at the Hawthorne Works?

They were: 

  • Experiments on Illumination
  • Relay Assembly Experiment
  • Mass Interviewing Program
  • Bank Wiring Observation Room
  • Personnel Counseling

Is the Hawthorne effect the same as a placebo effect?

Both are effects resulting from a person’s perceptions and reactions. The placebo effect emphasizes a response to new equipment or methods and represents a physical change while the Hawthorne effect is usually a response to being studied, observed, and will fade once the attention is withdrawn.

Quick review of the Hawthorne effect

The term Hawthorne effect was coined in 1958 by Henry A. Landsberger because of his analysis of earlier experiments conducted at the Hawthorne Works of Western Electric in the 1920s and 1930s.

The original study by the engineers was conducted to see if employee productivity would increase when the lighting levels were changed. During the study, productivity increased both when the lighting was increased and when it was decreased. Eventually all the productivity increases disappeared once the study was completed.

Subsequent experiments were done to test the effect of changes in working hours and work breaks. This also resulted in increased productivity, but again, productivity declined after the conclusion of the study. Ultimately, the researchers, led by Elton Mayo, concluded that employees were responding to the direct attention they were getting from the researchers and supervisors during the study, rather than to any real changes in the workplace.

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