The Hawthorne effect

During early years of my career, I used to observe a lot of things and make mental notes, especially during interactions with seniors and members of the senior management. Having professional education is one thing, and working with people drawn from diverse backgrounds with as many mindsets, is totally another. Though I was new, I made my own judgments about people.

One such observation was that some of my colleagues behaved differently when members of the management were part of certain meetings. While our immediate supervisor/manager knew what we did and how, his boss rarely interacted with us. So these colleagues always strived to impress him. Soon I understood that this set of colleagues completely change their behavior, work style, even interactions with us, while the management members were in town. I remember how the members of the management team became cozy and jovial with their team or people in general whenever a higher positioned executive made a site visit, or even when a client/customer visited to the same.

These are some of the classic examples of the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect derives its name from the place in Illinois (US) where the company, The Western Electric Company was located. Elton Mayo, a social psychologist conducted an experiment on workers’ productivity with the National Research Council in 1924. Researchers were studying the effect of increased lighting in the factory on the productivity of the workers of that factory. As expected, they saw an increase in productivity with slight increase in lighting. What surprised them was that the productivity levels remained high even when the lighting was reduced. Other variables within the factory were altered and yet the productivity levels remained high. This puzzled the researchers further. Soon, the researchers reached a conclusion that it was not the change in any workplace variables that was at play in the enhanced productivity of the workers but the fact that they were under observation in an experiment, that the management was paying attention to them, that had led to the spike in productivity. The same experiment was later expanded to other businesses and variables were altered to find that there was definitely a hike in productivity every time it was done. Researchers then went on to alter work timings, rest intervals, food being offered and many such.

What made the difference?

Employees work at factories, organizations and companies and get paid for it. But that is not what keeps them motivated in the long run. Like every human being, workers yearn for some attention, some recognition from the management. They want to feel recognized and this is not always in the form of rewards- monitory or otherwise.

What do employees want, then?
  • Employees work for pay but they also work for job satisfaction which comes with being heard, seen and recognized.
  • They need meaning to the work that they are doing. If there’s no one who notices their work, leave alone appreciates it, a kind of monotony and a rut sets in. That saps productivity and creativity.
  • Someone inquiring how an employee is doing is also enough at times.

I had a boss who used to stress on knowing and remembering every employee’s names. She made it a point to refer that employee by his/her name even before being introduced. Many times, she even referred to the context in which they had last met. Every single time, I have seen an extra large smile on the face of employees who experienced her warmth. I later realized that a small act of remembering one’s name by a management person (or even a high rank boss) is enough to make a worker feel good about himself. She was one of the best managers I’ve ever had.

Employees put in their whole in their work. Yes, they are paid for what they do, but a little appreciation, concern, a feeling of being valued by higher-ups doesn’t hurt. People in the management roles must keep this in mind when they expect that employees must up their standards of work. Many times, employees are not taken into consideration when making crucial decisions. The times of having active Trade Unions now a bygone era, workers and employees have themselves to fight for their demands. To each his own. The HR has replaced the Trade Union now and is considered a buffer between the management and the employees, but is, nonetheless, it is one of the most loathed departments! I know many would differ with my opinion, but with due respect to their work, one cannot deny that.

The precursor to Employee Engagement

Listening to opinions of the employees, showing concern for their genuine problems, having a proactive method of solving their problems, not allowing complaints to turn to grievances, all play a major role in having a great productive workforce. This concept has today evolved into what we know as employee engagement. At this point, it is also imperative for the workers and employees to not hold exaggerated demands and expectations from the management which would prove difficult to fulfill. What is required is an open communication that clears the air and allows a healthy growth for both parties.

Sadly, several companies don’t realize that and when they do so, it’s too late. Such companies then face the issues like high rates of attrition and low levels of employee engagement. What is needed is to make employees realize that they and their work, are valued by the company. The annual Best Place to Work  Survey, throws up amazing examples of smaller companies who score high on employee engagement and go on to create amazing products and services. A closer look at such companies yields some valuable insights. The people at higher positions in such companies lead by example. They care for their employees and it shows in the way they behave, offer facilities, hold conversations and engage with the employees. This makes the difference.

The Hawthorne effect opened the eyes of the management to the concept that merely hiring and paying the employees is not enough if one really wishes to grow the company in the long run. It takes much more than just the paycheck to keep the employees motivated every single day. The Hawthorne effect may have been a serendipitous find, but it opened a new way of thinking for the management and the employers towards the employees.

Have you experienced this type of behavior among your family or friends or colleagues? Take a moment and comment below.

Disclaimer: These are my observations only and my perspective of how I see Hawthorne Effect work and in no mean offer a professional perspective. I would recommend you reach out to a professional psychologist if you are looking for a professional opinion.

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