The Hawthorne effect is named after a series of experiments that changed the way we think about work and productivity. While previous studies had already focused on individuals and how their performance could be improved, the Hawthorne experiments placed the individual in a social context for the first time.

The experiments, which took place at Western Electric’s Hawthorne factory (a suburb of Chicago) between mid 1920s and early 1930s, showed that workers are influenced by their surroundings more than they are by their individual abilities.

Because the experiments originally sought out to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity, the researchers began the experiments by increasing the lighting in the work area of a group of workers. Another group of workers, whose lighting was not changed, served as a control group. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the productivity of the workers who got more light increased much more than that of the control group. After all, you can assume that a better lit work area is more conducive to productivity. 

But the twist came when the researchers noticed that no matter what changes they’re implementing, the workers’ productivity continued to go up.

Not only did the researchers change other working conditions, like working hours, rest breaks, and so on. They even dimmed the lights back down to the initial level. Productivity improved in each and every situation - even when the lights were dimmed!

By the time all the changes were reverted to their initial state, productivity was at its highest level, and absenteeism had plummeted.

So the researchers concluded that it wasn’t the actual changes in the working conditions that increased productivity. It was the interest researchers took in the workers, and the workers’ feeling that someone was concerned about their workplace.

Initially, the results of these experiments were considered in relation to research settings. They indicated that the very fact that people were under observation affected the results of a study. But the results soon trickled into management practices, since it showed that people work differently when they are being observed versus when they’re not.

How to use the Hawthorne effect to your company’s benefit 

So people improve their work behaviour based on a change in their work environment, not in response to the nature of the change itself. In the case of the Hawthorne experiments, workers increased their productivity because the presence of the researchers had a motivational effect on them. 

It’s important to note that the increase in productivity was not only the result of the researchers' presence, but also of the interest they took in the workers. In fact, Elton Mayo, the lead researcher at Hawthorne, described this change in productivity as a "positive emotional effect due to the perception of a sympathetic or interested observer".

This information is vital for team managers. If your team is hitting a plateau, the elements of the Hawthorne effect can help give your team a nudge using two elements:

  1. Physical change. Whether you change seating arrangements, decorations on the wall, or bring in some plants, change will have a positive effect on your team's productivity.
  2. Take the time to observe how your team works. Of course, don't peak over shoulders into their computer screens. Let them know that you'd like to better get to know the challenges that they come across in their work because you understand that there are things that can be improved. The simple fact that you're offering them your support and understanding can boost productivity.

Other conclusions of the Hawthorne studies

The lead researcher of the Hawthorne experiments, Elton Mayo, took a special interest in the effect of working in groups on individual workers. Along with his team, he drew the following general conclusions, that still stand today: 

The aptitudes of the individual are poor predictors of job performance.

Although individual aptitudes do indicate the physical and mental potential of the worker, productivity is influenced mostly by social factors. 

To this effect, Mayo wrote: 

“The desire to stand well with one's fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

In other words, any team has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Productivity is affected by the informal organization of the group.

The Hawthorne researchers became more and more interested in the informal groups that workers formed. They found out that there is a group life among the workers - independent of the organizational relationships. They also noticed that the relations supervisors develop with workers affect how workers carry out their tasks. That's why company culture can make or break a company. 

Even though the Hawthorne experiments have been highly criticized since their completion, their results have almost become axioms by now - both in the social sciences and in management practices. In fact, Dr. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said about the Hawthorne effect that "once you've got the anecdote, you can throw away the data." And in a way, he's right. In the case of the Hawthorne effect, the anecdote is stronger than the data, but that discredits neither the anecdote, nor the data. 

Photo credit: Phil Whitehouse, cc