What is the Hawthorne Effect?

Hawthorne effect
The Hawthorne effect is a psychological phenomenon that produces an improvement in human behavior or performance as a result of increased attention from superiors, clients or colleagues.

In a collaborative effort, the effect can enhance results by creating a sense of teamwork and common purpose. In social networking, the effect may operate like peer pressure to improve the behavior of participants. The Hawthorne effect is relevant to human resource management (HRM).

No single, all-encompassing definition of the Hawthorne effect exists today. It is one of several so-called effects of expectation seen in a wide range of situations. The mechanism of operation depends on the circumstances. In all cases, observed individuals behave or perform better than unsupervised individuals for a limited time if they suspect or know about the observation. However, the effect diminishes over time. For example, when the IT department of a corporation undergoes a reorganization, employee productivity is likely to rise in the short term, especially if the employees believe that they are more closely observed than they were under the previous management. In the long term, performance reverts to previous levels unless another environmental change occurs.

The Hawthorne effect was first seen in the 1920s at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works, from which the term derives. The Hawthorne studies were designed to find ways to increase worker productivity. An increase in the level of workplace illumination had a measurable positive effect on employee productivity. However, the researchers also found that when they lowered the lighting levels, productivity still increased. In fact, for a limited period after any change in the illumination level, the workers’ average output increased. The researchers concluded that the specific conditions tested for had nothing to do with the productivity increases.

Fritz J. Roethlisberger documented the results of the Hawthorne Studies in 1939 in Management and the Worker. The conclusions about worker productivity were in sharp contrast to the common perceptions of that time. Financial reward was found to be much less conducive to worker productivity than expected. Instead, greater productivity resulted when management made workers feel valued and aware that their concerns were taken seriously.

Professors Michel Anteby and Rakesh Khurana wrote about the Hawthorne Studies in their article, A New Vision:

The economic rewards of work were potentially picayune compared to the feeling of solidarity and worth created among individuals working together toward a common end. A manager’s effectiveness, therefore, could be measured on the extent to which those in the organization internalized a common purpose and perceived the connection between their actions and the organization’s ability to fulfill this common purpose. Management, then, was not about controlling human behavior but unleashing human possibility.

Although the conclusions of the Hawthorne studies have since been called into question, the theory persists — probably because most people understand that they usually perform with more care when observed than they do otherwise.

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