To answer that, we can look at research done in management and there is one we would like to focus on in today’s article, namely […]

To answer that, we can look at research done in management and there is one we would like to focus on in today’s article, namely the Hawthorne effect in management. How can a leader in today’s organization take advantage of the Hawthorne effect and what does this concept mean? Read on to find out!

Hawthorne effect research

Hawthorne’s original research was a series of tests that would ultimately lead to improved worker productivity and optimized production at Western Electric’s Illinois plant near Chicago. The research began around 1924 and was completed five years later.

One of the main objectives of this research was to study the changing conditions on the impact of worker productivity, mainly lighting. The company wanted to see if reducing or increasing the intensity of light at a worker’s workstation would affect improving the productivity of a given worker. While this was the core of the research, lighting was not the only variable tested. Variables such as work breaks, length of the workday and salary motivation were also tested. The research also included interviews with employees, during which they were able to speak freely about their concerns or complaints about work.

The results of this research were quite surprising. It turned out that productivity increased with any change in conditions, regardless of whether it meant an improvement or worsening of working conditions for a given worker. This may seem irrational, but productivity increased even when the workplace lighting was reduced to candles, and also when the workers had no break at all.

Specialists interpreting the results of the study noticed an interesting correlation.When interest was focused on a given employee, his or her productivity increased, while it decreased immediately after the study. According to this interpretation, productivity was independent of external factors such as a change in illumination, but of the interest and direct attention of researchers and supervisors focused on the worker in question at the time of the survey.

The tests conducted at the time were a kind of breakthrough. It was primarily about the assumptions and approach of the employees themselves. Researchers, when analyzing the obtained data, noticed that socio-psychological factors have a huge impact on employees and are often more important to them than salary incentives. This study became a breakthrough in the approach to the employee as a human being and resulted in putting this as the primary objective when setting management strategies.

What is the Hawthorne effect?

The term “Hawthorne effect” was invented by Henry A. Landsberg, who in 1958 analyzed the results of earlier tests on Hawthorne employees. His observations boiled down to the notion that temporary improvements in employee performance resulted from the fact that they knew they were observed while working.

Is the Hawthorne effect real?

The term is widely known and reproduced in many industry books. Moreover, it is taught in business schools and management or sociology courses. At first impression, the phrase seems apt and sensible, including in today’s reality. Suppose a manager announces a competition for employee of the week and also announces that during this time he or she will keep a closer eye on employees as they work. Due to the Hawthorne effect, during this time the employees’ efficiency should increase together with their interest in performing duties.

It may also turn out that more people will also perform additional duties and be willing to stay after work. Their productivity will probably drop as soon as the competition is over. Looking at the Hawthorne effect from this perspective, it seems that its assumptions are accurate and make sense.

However, recent scientific studies have begun to question the validity and authenticity of the tests conducted at the time, meaning that the basis of the Hawthorne effect assumption may have been false. The fact that the entire study focused on a single group of five women is cited as the main flaw in the assumption.

For this study, they were moved from a noisy common room to an individual room, where conditions were better and it was considerably quieter. During the study, they also had access to a supervisor who was helpful, friendly and tolerant – the complete opposite of the foreman in the common room. Working in this room was also associated with better pay, which probably also had an impact on improving productivity.

This is a subject that is still undergoing research and analysis, and researchers are getting rather divergent results that can neither fully confirm nor exclude the theory. Thus, we can assume that the Hawthorne effect does indeed occur, but not always and not in all circumstances. Still, it is possible to distinguish characteristic elements, which include:

  • Awareness of being watched
  • Innovative situations that deviate from the routine
  • Changes carried out during the study
  • Improved relationships and greater attention to employees

These circumstances certainly affect the results of the tests received and the very behavior of the employees during the tests.

Whether or not the Hawthorne effect is real is still a topic of debate. Researchers believe that such a phenomenon may indeed occur, yet its constituents have not been established. Moreover, it is not entirely clear why it occurs or what ultimate impact it has on employees.

While the topic is still unresolved, we should acknowledge the positive change it has brought like the focus on the employee as well as the underestimated role of the psychological and social aspects at work. We can learn a few things from each assumption that may help in developing better ways of handling the management of the organization.

How can a leader take advantage of the Hawthorne effect in today’s organization?

Informing employees that they are supervised or watched will not work in the long run and certainly will not increase their long-term productivity. Of course, it all depends on the individual – in some, it may cause rebellion and make them feel isolated, while in others it may create a greater sense of responsibility and motivate them to work more efficiently.

Nevertheless, there are better ways to take the basics of the Hawthorne effect assumption and translate them into today’s organizational management circumstances.

Listen to your employees

The analysis of the research indicated that employee productivity increased when employees felt they were listened to. Leading a team is not only about implementing your plan but also about listening to what team members have to say. Often, listening to them is not only a matter of raising their sense of importance but also an opportunity to get a different point of view and gain interesting ideas for development.

Nowadays, employees are driven not only by economic factors, but also by emotional ones, and friendly management that is willing to listen to and positively motivate employees is one of the key elements that influences job satisfaction and thus increased productivity.

Observe with sensitivity

Here it is necessary to find a balance between monitoring and actual observation. Employees hate when they know someone is watching and supervising them all day. On the other hand, they don’t like it when management completely disregards them and doesn’t monitor their performance. Then they feel that their work has no meaning, and their motivation decreases. It is therefore necessary to find the right balance between these two extremes.

The Firmbee tool will help you observe your employees (without putting pressure on them at the same time). The system is expanded with many handy features, such as:

  • Kanban boards – you can plan the execution of the project, distribute tasks to your employees and track the progress of the work in real-time,
  • Time logging and timesheet – each member can log the time they spent on a given task, and then you, as the leader, can track these results in the timesheet and react if you notice sudden deviations,
  • Check-ins– this feature of automatically asking repetitive questions, allows you to get ongoing feedback from your employees, learn about their insights and problems, and reassure them that their opinion is important to you.

Try Firmbee in your organization for free and experience the full capabilities of this system.

Hawthorne effect
Pay attention to the environment and social relations

The experiment originally conducted showed that group selection made a huge difference. Ladies who worked in a small room under better conditions established friendly relations and a common bond, which also had an impact on improving productivity. The atmosphere is something that is of great importance when working, and we often forget about it. Therefore a leader should observe employees and skillfully select teams so they can positively influence each other.

To boost productivity as a leader, make sure there is proper communication within the team. Make everyone feel that they can freely express their opinion or views, and ensure that there are no disputes between employees.

Get rid of monotony

One of the elements the researchers saw as having an impact on the results of the study at the time was the element of innovation. Performing repetitive tasks can, over time, create a feeling of boredom, which hinders the sense of purpose and productivity.

As a leader, you need to ensure that every employee feels that their work is meaningful. Even if changing the duties themselves is not possible, you can make sure that some other elements add to workplace dynamics. One interesting idea is to introduce workshops, training sessions or other creative activities, even fun ones.

Identify clear paths for development

What influences employee motivation is not always related only to improved pay or interpersonal relations. Some employees are most motivated by the opportunity to further develop and climb the career ladder. This is especially true for those who have already reached a certain level and are considered talents within the company.

Retaining such people can get difficult if they do not see the potential for further development. Therefore, a good way to do this is to introduce career plans that would clearly define the next steps of a given employee’s development within the company.

Hawthorne effect

Hawthorne effect – summary

Intelligent observation, or perhaps it would be better to say smart supervision or monitoring, is just one element in improving employee performance. The leader needs to become part of the team and stay close to the employees so that they feel taken care of. Interpersonal relationships within the team are also decisive, though there are ultimately other factors that affect productivity as well like .

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Being a leader: Hawthorne effect in management caroline becker avatar 1background

Author: Caroline Becker

As a Project Manager, Caroline is an expert in finding new methods to design the best workflows and optimize processes. Her organizational skills and ability to work under time pressure make her the best person to turn complicated projects into reality.